A Most Violent Year is the story of a married couple, Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain), trying to eke out a piece of the American Dream. They have two young daughters, a comfortable home, and Abel has inherited the oil business left by Anna’s father and has plans to expand it.
The catch is that the setting is 1981 New York, one of the most crime-ridden years in that city’s history, and no matter how hard Abel tries to walk the straight and narrow, he’s surrounded by competitors who rely on guns and bullets to knock off their rivals. This is the third film by writer-director J.C. Chandor, who made a splashy debut with 2011’s corporate-corruption drama Margin Call, then followed it up with the ambitious 2013 failure All is Lost, a near-silent survival story starring Robert Redford and a leaky boat. Here, once again, Chandor puts an unexpected spin on familiar material, creating a crime story in which the lead character abhors violence and struggles to avoid it.
But like a piece of gum stuck to your shoe, the criminal underworld won’t leave Abel be. Already armed with a small fleet of trucks, Abel uses his life savings as part of a down payment for a vacant industrial facility that will become his headquarters. He’s confident he’ll be able to deliver the rest of the payment before the deadline with the help of his banker, counting on his spotless record and good standing. But as he starts to push ahead, goons begin hijacking his delivery drivers, who are unarmed and defenseless, and stealing his rigs loaded with oil. After one particularly brutal theft, as assistant D.A. (Selma’s David Oyewolo) begins to investigate Abel for possible wrongdoings, and the bank financing Abel was counting on falls through. If he doesn’t come up with the rest of the money he owes ($1.5 million), he will lose everything.
This doesn’t sit well with the fiery-tempered Anna, who respects her husband’s ambition but also believes he needs to step up and play by the same rules his competitors use (Abel doesn’t even own a gun). The title of A Most Violent Year is ironic: Here is a crime drama with barely any gunplay or bloodshed. The period setting is reflected mostly in cosmetic ways (subway cars covered in graffiti, hairstyles) with one crucial exception: The lack of cellphones becomes an integral part of the story, because Abel can’t stay in contact with his drivers to make sure they’re safe, nor can he be warned about impending threats when he’s away from a landline.
Isaac’s performance is initially distracting, channeling too much of the idealistic, young Michael Corleone in The Godfather (not the soulless, monstrous Michael of The Godfather Part II). Gradually, though, Isaac makes the character his own, showing us a man who uses calm and a straightforward demeanor to mask the anxiety and stress snowballing inside him as time is running out and his options keep narrowing.
Chastain, too, downplays Anna as a shrewd businesswoman who excels at cooking books instead of the demanding, oblivious shrew common in Martin Scorsese pictures. Her disapproval at her husband’s refusal to hit back at his competitors is silent but palpable. Albert Brooks is the voice of reason as Abel’s attorney, constantly reminding him of the anvil hanging over his head, ready to drop at any moment.
Chandor eschews the expected moments of bloody action, using them judiciously for greater effect (including a terrific car chase that segues into a footchase with grave consequences). Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the images an elegant glow that makes them feel timeless, despite the specificity of the film’s time period, and as Abel finds himself cornered in all directions by lawmen and criminals alike, the movie builds a quiet, grave tension.
A Most Violent Year is more of a story about the workings of American business than a gangster movie — it’s about the battle waged by an entrepreneur trying to build a legitimate empire in a city where crime offers a much easier and more profitable short cut. Abel is a man with ideals in a world that has no use for them: If he’s going to succeed, he’s going to have to use his wits instead of bullets, and although the odds against him are formidable, watching his struggle is riveting entertainment.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyewolo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel.
Writer-director: J. C. Chandor.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.