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What is it that determines a truly great acting performance? Obviously, believability is a key factor, as is the ability to deliver lines with the proper cadence and personality. There are some actors out there, however, who have the innate ability to really shock audiences by getting them to rethink any and all preconceived notions they may have had about a character, creating something that is multi-layered, magnetic, and uniquely theirs. These kinds of performances can be rare, but they can also carry entire narratives all by their lonesome. This is precisely what is achieved by star Oscar Isaac in writer/director J.C. Chandor’s period drama A Most Violent Year, who not only puts on an absolutely staggering turn, but also elevates the film to become one of the best of 2014.
Set in New York City in 1981 – one of the most violent years in the metropolis’ history – the movie sets up a recognizable American Dream-inspired storyline. An immigrant and self-made man named Abel Morales (Isaac) tirelessly works to expand his heating oil business with a land deal, while also working to protect his company against potentially disastrous threats – including a district attorney-led investigation into financial impropriety, and a string of oil truck hijackings. Though the film is very small scale and entirely character driven, it’s the star’s performance that keeps you enraptured from frame one. And though Abel is a rather hard-nosed, somewhat unlikable individual, Isaac’s brand of stern, intense charisma actually makes you respect the character’s ethics and fortitude during very dangerous times.
It’s not as though we have come to have low expectations from Oscar Isaac, given that he has regularly impressed in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and Drive. But his work is just that impressive in A Most Violent Year - with J.C. Chandor providing him some great character material. Throughout the movie, Abel is put in disastrous scenario after disastrous scenario, as everything he’s worked so hard to create begins falling like dominos, but Isaac projects and sells an air of confidence and strength that constantly reminds the audience that they are cheering for the right guy. Abel’s a man who perpetually feels the gangster world of violence and guns and corruption biting at his heels, and while he’s not exactly 100% clean, he has an honest drive for honesty.
Unlike Robert Redford’s spectacular turn in Chandor’s All Is Lost, though, Isaac isn’t up there alone in A Most Violent Year, and the star finds his performance bolstered by a brilliant supporting cast. Jessica Chastain, despite having a fairly limited role to play, is wonderful and a blast to watch as Abel’s reactionary, mobster-family-born wife who keeps all of the company’s accounting books “in line with standard industry procedure.” Also brilliant in tempting Abel to the dark side, whispering in the protagonists ear about providing drivers with unregistered handguns for protection, is the always affable Albert Brooks, who offers a perfect contrast to Chastain’s ferociousness.
Of course, a great deal of credit is due to J.C. Chandor - who has shown quite an impressive eye for casting through his first three features – but his direction of Oscar Isaac’s performance is far from the only impressive element of A Most Violent Year (just the most notable). While the movie didn’t present the filmmaker with the same extreme narrative challenges found in his last film, he does beautifully adapt stylistically to his new film’s period setting. Chandor’s vision of 1981 New York is as a very cold, murky, threatening place, and it does wonders not only for the story’s dark tone, but also its characters – practically establishing an aura of bravery from Abel just from his willingness to exist in the city.
Armed with a ticking clock, high stakes, dangerously unpredictable characters, and a dark, period-accurate atmosphere, A Most Violent Year is a great movie on paper, but it’s a tremendously powerful performance at its center from an incredibly talented actor that truly brings it alive, and makes it a film to remember.