To me the most impressive cinematography is often when I can see that the DP is telling the story in a compelling way while also boldly subverting the standards I have come to expect. That is what Bradford Young does. Going at least as far back as his expressive use of color on the film "Pariah" (2011), there has always been an artist's eye shaping his work. It's clear that he is well on his way to ascending to A-list status among cinematographers.
Young seems to have developed an obsession with exploring the darkness of the image. On the 2013 movie "Ain't them Bodies Saints" he often underexposed the film two or three stops to achieve the desired aesthetic. For "A Most Violent Year" his lighting accomplished an entirely unique look by delving deeply into the shadows. He often lit actors so that they seemed to fade into their background. He gave the sense of the underground nature of the dealings on screen. As audience members we learn so much about the environment that Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has to navigate through the lighting. It would have read as an entirely different narrative without the dearth of illumination from scene to scene. The content of the film could really be delivered in many ways. It doesn't have to feel like a hard-boiled crime film, it could have come across as a clueless and innocent man, getting in way over his head. That's not to say that the photography is solely responsible for the tone of the film. Oscar Isaac's intensity throughout every scene is of course also a major factor, but we start to see into his character way before he's ready to reveal it to us through the beautifully stark lighting. We can feel that something is not right with him; we know that he's capable of more than what he says thanks to Young's work.
One of the best moments he chose to bring out the narrative, was when Morales finds himself in the midst of a chase scene through a tunnel. The environment is filled with smoke preventing the car's headlights from reaching into the distance. It creates a really powerful effect when we can literally see the fall off of the light go from intensely hot just in front of the vehicle to almost no light at all a few feet farther. In those moments we get completely transplanted into the character's shoes. Often cinematographers will take liberties with reality for various reasons. It would be totally within reason for another DP to decide that it's important to see in front of the car and add light so the audience can clearly tell what's going on, but Young has the vision to see how the lack of light is far more visceral. Morales can't see, so we can't see. He forces us to experience the tension alongside the character.
Even in the home scenes, Young took the reality of a situation and manipulated it in ways that no one else really does. We've all experienced the moment when you first walk home and the house is dark. You haven't had a chance to walk around yet and flip on all the lights. Young milks that moment for everything it's got. He shoots beautiful scenes of the Moraleses almost as if they were on a stage. There's light where they're standing and not much anywhere else. It feels like this strange reality, because in truth sometimes the house is just dark and you just tend to gravitate to where the light is. Sometimes you're standing in the light, sometimes you're not. It's clear while watching it that all of this is done with a very particular eye, but it's brilliant because it feels almost incidental. It has a sense that they just happened to wander into the light, even though of course Young has that moment planned out in advance.
Now that Young is quickly leaving his “up and comer” status in the dust and vigorously pursuing a “here and succeeding” promotion, it’s a shame to see that he was left behind in this year’s Oscar nominations. He had been receiving a lot of hype for his work on this movie and the very well-received film “Selma” (2014). His absence only further highlights the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars. Many, myself included, were hoping that he would be the first black person nominated for cinematography since Remi Adefarasin was nominated for the 1998 film “Elizabeth.” He would've been the second black person nominated.