Welcome to Oscar season — Oscar Isaac season, that is

Oscar Isaac exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance in two of the biggest films released this awards season.

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A Most Violent Year (15)
dir: J C Chandor

Ex Machina (15)
dir: Alex Garland

I’m a sucker for Oscar season. Oscar Isaac season, that is. When I failed to recognise him last year in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January it occurred to me that this Lonely Planet compendium of a man (he has Cuban, Guatemalan, French and Israeli branches in his family tree) might be a born star. In that sun-kissed Patricia Highsmith adaptation, it was tantalisingly unclear whether his true designs were on a chirpy young bride or her shady older husband. Where had this matinee idol sprung from? It was as though the film-makers had travelled back in time and kidnapped Ramon Novarro.

I’d seen Isaac only a few months earlier in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He looked entirely different with his inky beard and his curls like black lianas; his sleepwalking presence as a forlorn folk minstrel was spellbinding. The magic is in those coolly insinuating eyes, not so much “Come to bed” as: “Come back to bed, we haven’t finished yet.”

It transpires that Oscar Isaac amnesia is a common ailment. At the premiere in Cannes of the Coens’ film, reporters wondered if he was a real folk singer. All memory of him as a smouldering jailbird in Drive had been erased. (His turn as a piano-playing security guard in Madonna’s WE had also been forgotten, which was probably a blessing.) Now Isaac has arrived, as proven by his presence in two new films and the next instalments of X-Men and Star Wars. But do the movies know what to do with him?

The answer, in A Most Violent Year, is: sort of. He plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman whose rise as New York City’s leading fuel supplier in the early 1980s is threatened by competitors. His drivers are being ambushed and his fuel stolen. Still he never raises his voice above a soothing rumble. Stalking the concrete plains of the city’s waterfront, all weeds and warehouses and crumbling walls, Abel is like a magnificent lion in his desert-coloured, box-shouldered camel-hair coat. What a pity that his pronouncements – “I like to own the things I use”; “I will not allow the weaknesses of others to affect me” – make him sound like a capitalist fortune cookie.

Imagine a New York version of The Long Good Friday and you’ll have some idea of where the plot is heading. Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s brassy mobster wife, even seems to be channelling Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the writer-director, J C Chandor, extinguishes drama at every opportunity. When he isn’t resorting to ponderous wide shots of men exchanging briefcases under the gaze of the grey Manhattan skyline, he is filling the screen with tasteful images of the Morales family home; this tale of crime, corruption and soft furnishings resembles a Sunday-supplement Scorsese. Abel has two young daughters who pop up only when the plot needs them (one finds a loaded gun; the other has her birthday party interrupted by police) but there’s not a toy to be seen in the house. These lives don’t look lived-in.

A Most Violent Year draws any potency it has from its leading man. His strongest scene, when Abel is teaching the sales team to captivate customers (“Hold the eye contact longer than you’d like – you see what happens”), is like an Oscar Isaac acting masterclass. Ex Machina also exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance. He swaps Abel’s sleek hair helmet for a shaved head and a beard like a hairy nosebag; his face seems to be on upside-down.

Isaac plays Nathan, a billionaire who is developing artificial intelligence at his remote mountain hideaway. He invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend time with his synthetic creation (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she can pass for human. There are sweeping helicopter shots and chic cinematography but this three-hander isn’t cinema: it’s a Ted talk shot in a boutique hotel, with ideas about consciousness and evolution itemised rather than dramatised. Isaac delivers a detailed study in derangement, whether breaking into a dance routine or experiencing perverse delight as the megabytes hit the fan (“This is fucking unreal!”). But if it’s complex female characters you want, stick with the Fembots from Austin Powers.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East