Chandor's period crime drama is his least cohesive film, but is gripping and tense nonetheless.
A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor’s third feature, A Most Violent Year, is set in 1981 New York City, a year that saw a dramatic spike in criminal activity (hence the odd title). Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a young, self-made entrepreneur and family man who runs a heating oil business with his mob-princess wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who handles the books. He’s an ambitious, confident mogul who’s always moving forward. His competitors in the cutthroat home-heating market run their operations like mobsters, but Abel’s got more class than that. He covets transparency and morality, and unlike his rivals, he can sleep at night with a clear conscience (though he’s no stranger to shady back room dealings). “I run a fair and clean business, and I will fight to my last breath to prove that.”
A Most Violent Year is about a man protecting his honor at all costs while the rest of the world, even his family, conspires to strip him of it. The son of Hispanic immigrants, Abel started from the bottom as a heating-oil truck driver and eventually moved up the ranks, married his boss’ daughter, and bought the company from his father-in-law, who played the game as dirty as Abel’s rival merchants. With the company in his hands, he turned things around and made it a clean operation. He’s looking to expand, too: a piece of waterfront real estate looks to be the key to cornering the oil market, and he’s got 30 days to close the deal.
Abel’s a man of conviction, constantly in pursuit of the American dream, but all that surrounds him is nightmarish. The rampant violence and corruption of the city threaten to tarnish his squeaky-clean business on the daily, and jeopardize his chances of closing the waterfront deal. As a result of the vicious turf war, his truck drivers are getting held at gunpoint, his salesmen are getting roughed up, and he even finds an armed goon prowling around his McMansion late at night while his wife and kids are home. Surely arming himself and his crew for protection would be the smart thing to do, but he’s not cut from that cloth.
Reluctantly, Abel allows his drivers to carry guns on their deliveries (the first in a series of moralistic compromises), but refuses to tote one himself. When Anna buys a pistol as a knee-jerk reaction to the would-be home invader, Abel loses his mind. “I don’t want anything do to with this!” he roars. If he or she were to ever be seen holding a gun, his reputation would crumble. Adding to Abel’s stack of problems is a district attorney (David Oyelowo) who’s sniffing around the oil industry in search of corruption and malfeasance. It’s a terribly twisty plot, but Chandor’s pace is set at a slow, steady boil to make it digestible. The tension mounts in small increments, until it’s so thick by the film’s final act you feel like you’re suffocating (in a good way).
On two separate occasions Chandor shows us Abel running through the sooty, sapped NYC streets, and together these scenes comprise the film’s most poetic artistic statement. As the film opens, we see him on a morning exercise run, flying past graffitied walls, past run-down buildings, past the urban malaise: he’s running toward a brighter future. Later, we see him running again, in an impeccably-shot foot chase sequence on railroad tracks that sees him hunting down an enemy, gun in hand, with vengeance and violence on his mind: he’s running toward the devil. He’s lost himself, and the film’s real suspense lies in the question of whether Abel’s will is strong enough to not succumb to the unscrupulous ways of the crime lord.
Isaac is a convincing kingpin, always looking invincible in his mustardy double-breasted coat, but Abel’s so monomaniacal sometimes that he feels less like a human being and more like a crime movie cliché. The same can be said for Chastain, who acts with so much kick and venom that it’s a hit-or-miss situation: she either nails Chandor’s sizzling one-liners and looks like a badass, or she overshoots her lines and comes off like a factory-issue mob-movie wife (the wonky Brooklyn accent doesn’t help). They’ve got chemistry together, though, and generate some real energy in their heated domestic arguments. Taking nothing away from their acting abilities (I’m a big fan of them both), I don’t feel like they were necessarily the best fits for their respective roles.
One piece of the story that feels under-developed is the reasoning behind Abel shedding every bit of his immigrant heritage. One can easily suppose that he did it to make his image more appealing on his way up to the top of the mountain, but that’s an uninteresting supposition to make. Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel’s drivers who gets hijacked and beaten, is Hispanic as well, and Abel’s conversations with him are the only time we hear him speak Spanish. There’s a loose symbolism that Julian represents the former life Abel’s left behind (to detail this would be too spoiler-y), but it’s clunky symbolism at best.
Like Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, A Most Violent Year boasts a supporting cast of vets that add gravity and richness to the proceedings. Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Peter Gerety, and Jerry Adler make brief, but impactful appearances. Bradford Young’s (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) cinematography is ashy, atmospheric and textured, and coupled with the phenomenal period set and costume design makes New York City look downright apocalyptic compared to the shining culture hub it is today. Chandor pays homage to Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City and Serpico as far as the milieu he’s created: it’s a city full of tough guys and alpha dogs who were born to screw each other over and hold meetings in dingy, poorly-lit rooms.
A Most Violent Year is my least favorite of Chandor’s films. I’m still a fan, though; the fact that he went from All is Lost, a boiled-down fable pitting a man against the elements, to a labyrinthine crime picture like this verifies for me that he’s one of the most exciting directors working today. Just like Abel, it’s not in Chandor’s nature to sit still; he’s always moving forward.