A Most Violent Year: Quiet drama honors gangster genre

Hollywood is putting serious pocket change into remaking vintage films using modern technology for new audiences.

It seems as though no film is beyond the grasp of remake-hungry directors, though there are still some movies that need to be left untouched.

You just can’t remake “The Godfather.”

“A Most Violent Year,” a little-seen film that the National Board of Review chose as the best of 2014, isn’t a “Godfather” rip-off or remake, but carries with it all the lessons modern filmmakers can learn from the Francis Ford Coppola crime classic.

J.C. Chandor’s third feature film — following 2011’s breakout hit “Margin Call” and 2013’s “All Is Lost” — stars Oscar Isaac as a businessman trying to stay clean in a dirty, corrupt heating oil industry.

The film gets its title from the background in which it is set — New York City in 1981, a disproportionately violent year in the town’s history.

At its core, “A Most Violent Year” is a brilliantly simple film masquerading as a gangster morality play.

Isaac’s Abel Morales, a Latin American immigrant who believes in the “American dream” in its purest form, wants to do right by his wife and daughters.

His sense of honor in a land of thieves and crooks that rob his company help define him as a more conflicted, modern day Michael Corleone, a role Isaac plays with understated, refined grace.

Counter-balancing Abel in their marriage, Jessica Chastain continues to prove why she’s the best actress working in Hollywood with a scene-stealing performance as Abel’s wife, Anna, whose Mob family background casts a shadow over Abel’s legitimate business operations.

It’s Chastain’s on-screen presence that sneaks up on viewers focused on the nuances of Isaac’s performance as Anna provides the unseen but loudly heard muscle backing Abel’s calm and calculated demeanor.

Chandor’s script provides both Juilliard-trained actors a treasure-trove of character development material from which to mine, allowing Isaac and Chastain to give some of the year’s most compelling performances.

As Abel’s right-hand-man, Albert Brooks lightly evokes Robert Duvall’s performance as concerned mob lawyer Tom Hagen from “The Godfather,” while “Selma” star David Oyelowo is capable as an assistant district attorney investigating the Morales’ business.

But it’s Elyes Gabel — in a critical supporting role as a fearful truck driver thinking of taking matters into his own hands — that offers up the best work from the supporting cast.

His nuanced performance helps give added meaning to the delicate balance between right and wrong in Abel’s struggle to achieve the American dream.

“A Most Violent Year” is as important a film for what isn’t on screen as for what is.

Chastain, with her finger on the trigger throughout, is never granted the opportunity to explode into rage and order a “Godfather”-esque series of hits to even the score.

Chandor, in both his script and direction, values restraint as a means to uphold Abel’s moral compass and flip the stereotypical gangster genre on its head.

For a film titled “A Most Violent Year,” there’s a glaring minimalism of actual violence in preference to the looming threat of violence, terror through fear, rather than action.

The film will likely be remembered most for its climatic chase scene, clearly influenced by “The French Connection.”

It’s actually “A Most Violent Year” and not “Selma” that has suffered most from poor release scheduling, which prevented the film from real consideration for Academy Award nominations.

A Golden Globe nominee, Chastain would have been the shining star in an otherwise lackluster Best Supporting Actress category, while Isaac would have found himself in the middle of a difficult to crack Best Actor race.

Cinematographer Bradford Young, also responsible for the Oscar-nominated biopic “Selma,” provides a gritty depth to “A Most Violent Year,” evoking classic ’70s films like “Taxi Driver” and “Dirty Harry.”

Many critics bemoan a lack of a nomination for Young’s work shooting “Selma,” but “A Most Violent Year” is his career best work.

Chandor’s best effort to date, “A Most Violent Year” honors its gangster genre predecessors while going somewhere new in the story telling, a lesson worth learning by the rest of Hollywood.

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