by Jason Suzuki
NOTE: This was a self-made double feature. There is no theater currently showing these films in a double-bill.
Both films are New York stories. Both films deal with the corruption of the majority up against a lone virtuous character; for A Most Violent Year this is the main issue while for Amira & Sam it is one of the elements that brings the title characters together for their romantic comedy. J.C. Chandor’s film is a well-crafted thriller with Oscar Isaac playing a character similar to Michael Corleone in that his main dilemma is resisting to let go of his pride and play dirty like everyone else in the heating oil industry. The other film is a romantic comedy featuring Martin Starr in a lead role as a veteran returning back to the states where he falls in love with an Iraqi immigrant. Trust me, it does not play out as forced as its premise sounds.
The main problem with both films is that they under utilize their female leads. With A Most Violent Year the expectation for more Jessica Chastain comes from the film’s marketing where she is displayed prominently. The main focus of the film is Abel’s desire for success through honest means. His wife Anna is just one of many characters in Abels’ life that don’t have the morals or the pride that Abel has to keep the pursuit of the American dream clean. For Amira & Sam though there is no excuse to not have more Dina Shihabi, who plays the titular Amira. One of the only scenes I can remember that focused just on her and did not include Martin Starr still had something to do with setting seeds for Sam’s storyline. Sure, Sam’s story might be the more interesting one but there is a sense that Amira is what Sam needs in his post-military life but the feeling does not feel as mutual for Amira’s immigrant life. Granted this may be to the film’s benefit as the topic of a veteran’s alienation by society does not seem as played out as the alienation of an immigrant.
When Amira and Sam are together the chemistry is great. It is strong enough that Mullin can leave a camera on them for around ten minutes with no cuts and turn in what is the standout scene in the entire film: Amira and Sam finally decide to share a bed, after fighting about making the other one sleep on the floor. What follows is the development of their love story, from awkward silence, shooting the shit, strengthening their friendship, and finally expressions of their feelings. It is a testament to Starr and Shihabi’s strengths but also Mullin’s choices as a filmmaker to let them do this. In terms of standout scenes for A Most Violent Year there are two that come to mind: a third-act chase sequence reminiscent of the one in The French Connection and one very late scene which through just one action shows how far Isaac’s Abel has come since the start of the film. A scene in which Isaac hesitates to put a deer out of its misery after hitting it with his car and Chastain does it with no pause is a little too obvious way of showing their dynamic, but this near-final scene does this same thing yet without the lack of subtlety.
So bottom line: ignore the horrible trailer that Drafthouse Films has made for Amira & Sam, where they take out all the humor and make the film resemble one of the formulaic rom-coms that Amira hawks bootlegs of, and ignore the prospect of seeing a lead performance from Chastain when you look at her top billed on the poster. Or rather ignore the poster yet watch the trailer, and be delightfully surprised by how not shitty Amira & Sam is. I am not fucking with your asshole about this.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.