With gangster movies having been a staple of popular film for many years, it’s nice that JC Chandor has made a film that twists the format nicely on its head. This is Chandor’s third film behind the camera, the previous two having been 20011’s bank drama ‘Margin Call’ and 2013’s seafaring survival drama ‘All Is Lost’ featuring a wordless performance from the great Robert Redford. He’s a master of aesthetic, with each of his films having a particular look to suit the content, the cinematography giving you an idea of the atmosphere. Having worked with Frank DeMarco for his past two films in that capacity, Bradford Young, who did such a great job on ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’, comes in for this one and immediately we know that we’re in a Chandor film, every shot basically screaming as they drench you in moody Brooklyn exteriors and dazzling snowy expanses, laying the foundation for the acting and the script to use as a springboard.
That’s exactly what they do. Oscar Isaac is fantastic as main character Abel Morales, whose personal struggle is fascinating and whose attempts to do things the ‘right’ way make up what is quite unique about this film since it’s one where gangsters are hinted at but never really shown, beyond a few thugs here and there. His interactions with his tenacious and unrelenting wife Anna, as played immaculately by Jessica Chastain, are fantastically written and very well performed. These interactions are nuanced in the best possible way, crammed as they are with hidden meanings and explosions of barely contained anger even while their affection for each other forms the bedrock for the conversations. This is where the film is at its best, shining in their exchanges and exploring a very interesting dynamic. Chandor’s writing, while always strong, really comes in to its own in those moments and while the rest of the film is interesting, one wishes there was a little more focus on their intense relationship.
This is however a small criticism for a film that is unapologetically deliberate in its pacing, but makes every shot and every lingering second count, aided by a powerful score from Alex Ebert that pulsates constantly in the background, helping the film to grow in stature as it progresses. Its pacing makes its action sequences even more tense and thrilling as they suddenly lurch in to action, breaking the trancelike hold that it has on you just for a couple of minutes, making those sequences seem all the more important. It’s great that Chandor has finally utilised his considerable talent to make his most complete and definitely most enthralling film yet, so much of which is down to Isaac’s commanding performance and particularly Chastain’s turn, who undoubtedly ensures that her character is the most memorable by giving us a performance smothered in cunning and hidden menace. The film is undoubtedly a success, but perhaps falls short of being perfect because it is in need of a little editing, since a couple of subplots are perhaps perfunctory and could be done without, making it a little leaner and that bit more atmospheric, but ultimately it’s a film that subverts expectation and captivates throughout, its deliberate pace providing no obstacle to an intelligent and worthy crime thriller.
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