You have to hand it to writer/director J.C. Chandor. He is immensely skilled at taking otherwise mundane topics (the stock market in Margin Call, a disastrous solo sailing adventure in All Is Lost, and the oh-so-glamorous heating oil industry here) and making tense dramas surrounding them. His films are all character-driven, and A Most Violent Year is no exception. This slow burn of a drama is a multi-layered look at capitalism, the American Dream, and the lengths to which we will go to convince ourselves we are doing the right thing.
It’s New York City, circa the winter of 1981 during one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant who owns a heating oil distribution business. As the film opens, he’s looking to purchase a facility that will enable him to corner the market. He makes a risky decision by delaying the majority of the remaining $1.5 million payment for thirty days. It only gets more risky as Abel’s truck drivers begin to get hijacked and attacked by unknown perpetrators. Are they in cahoots with Abel’s competition? Abel prides himself on being an honest businessman in a city where such a thing is scarce. The situation will test his resolve, both professionally and personally.
It would seem natural to sit around and wait for A Most Violent Year to turn into a rote gangster picture, but it never does. Chandor’s script strictly revolves around character motivations, and he never missteps. Abel always sticks to his convictions, even when he must bend his own rules to convince himself he is acting in an honest manner. Compounding his temptations to go off the tracks is his wife, Anna (Chastain), the daughter of the gangster from which Abel acquired the company. She adheres to a much more matter-of-fact approach that doesn’t gel with Abel’s. Their very livelihoods depend upon the deal going through. Chandor never loses track of the stakes. After a solid two acts of build-up, Chandor unleashes one of the best foot/car/truck chases of recent memory. For once, I really had no idea what was going to happen. It all leads to a satisfactory, if untidy ending.
Oscar Isaac, perfectly dressed and coifed at all times, is efficient and engaging as Abel. He plays the character in a cold, calculated way that could have come undone for a lesser actor. We always understand Abel’s motivations, even if we don’t agree. Isaac puts on a clinic in understated ferocity that really jumps off the screen. Matching him beat for beat is Chastain as the blunt, foul-mouthed Anna. She has no issues with stooping to the level of Abel’s rivals to maintain their way of life. Though underused in the film’s second half, Chastain brilliantly emotes her character’s struggles as revelations are gradually made about her involvement with the company. Fine supporting work is turned in by a virtually unrecognizable Albert Brooks as Abel’s attorney and Elyes Gabel as a distraught driver who’s been attacked twice.
With A Most Violent Year, Chandor has positioned himself as an authority on stories about man, material possessions, and moral conflict. His films require patience, thought, and reflection to fully sink in. A Most Violent Year is a compelling exercise in minimalist intensity, drawing power from characterization and well-paced plotting. Anchored by phenomenal performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, it’s one of 2014’s best films.
Length: 125 Minutes
Rating: R for language and some violence.
Theatrical Release: December 31, 2014
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks