J.C. Chandor started off as a promising but cold filmmaker. His first two feature films, Margin Call and All is Lost, showed us the nuts and bolts of those worlds, whether it be the life of a lost sailor or the strangest day at a Wall Street investment bank. In the latter case, the world was far more compelling than the characters, but he brought some of the humanity and nuance lacking in his directorial debut to All is Lost. Thankfully he’s cranked up the emotion even higher for his latest film, A Most Violent Year, which is a paradoxical title for this stirring drama.
Much of the drama derives from the unsexy world of heating oil supply. This is not a gangster movie about drugs. This is not a gangster movie with shootouts. This is a gangster movie about a man, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who doesn’t want to be a gangster.
To Abel, success comes from hard work and luck, not cheating one’s way to the top. Unfortunately his competitors and wife, Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain), disagree. Set in the most violent year in the history of New York, 1981, the businessman tries not to stray from his honest path, while everyone else accepts the lawless world they’re living in. Chandor depicts this New York as the wild west, to the point where Alex Ebert’s score even sounds like it came out of a classic Western. There’s always danger lurking somewhere, whether on the streets or on the radio. It’s an abrasive environment. Rarely when Abel is walking the streets does a train or plane go unheard at an unnerving volume.
On the surface the stakes are very high. Abel is about to buy a pricey oil holding facility, but that pivotal deal is thrown into jeopardy after his business is investigated by a district attorney (David Oyelowo), who believes Abel’s business isn’t as honest as he says it is. There’s also the matter of competing oil heating companies knocking off his trucks. At the start of the film a young oil truck driver of Abel’s, Julian (Elyes Gabel), is brutally beaten at gun point. These hijackings persist for Abel and his drivers. He tells Julian that the men who robbed him are cowards.
Questions swirl in Abel’s mind: how do you defeat a coward? Can you do it the right way? Is there a right way? Is it wrong to fight fire with fire? These questions, in addition to his wife’s manifest ambition, eat away at him.
A Most Violent Year isn’t a brutal film because of its blood. In fact, there’s very little of it in Chandor’s story. The brutality is found in Abel’s dilemma, because it’s often uncomfortable to watch. He’s a character with a clear sense of right and wrong constantly being pushed to bend his rules. All he ever wanted was to achieve the American dream without having to get his hands dirty. In Chandor’s world, in the world of 1981, that’s not easy. There’s no easy solutions in this movie, except for those characters who take comfort in amorality.
Abel is just as much at war with his wife as he is with his competitors. It’s clearly a loving marriage, but that love is tested when their world views clash. They have radically different moral codes. Anna, being the daughter of a famous gangster, acts and thinks like the daughter of a famous gangster. She’s not afraid of a fight, not from her husband or anybody else. Anna is ruthless and cynical, everything Abel is not. She is the person Abel so desperately doesn’t want to become, and their marriage is the dark, bleeding heart of A Most Violent Year.
This is a movie that questions good and evil as much as its protagonist. At one point Abel’s lawyer, played by an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks, asks, why do you do it? What does Abel get out of this business? It’s a question Abel doesn’t understand. If he did, he probably wouldn’t put himself through all this hardship. Abel, like his wife, is far from perfect. He’s chasing the American dream, but he doesn’t know why; he can’t explain why. This isn’t the typical “good guy has to do bad” arc. Before his pride and ideas are challenged Abel is just as interesting at the start of the film as he is near the end.
It’s a hell of a character study that Isaac rips into with a compelling calmness. No matter how bad things get, Isaac plays it cool, having Abel continue to believe that if you do things the right way it will all workout. Chastain is equally captivating. She’s ferocious, warm, funny and terrifying.
A Most Violent Year is a very entertaining character project. Although Chandor avoids plenty of expected mobster movie thrills, there’s still excitement to be had here. There’s a chase scene in this movie that ranks amongst some of the finest set pieces in recent memory. Not only because it’s well put together – and it is, thanks to a tremendous use of silence and some striking long shots – but because it’s emotional. The foot and car chase challenges Abel on more than a physical level. Seeing him wrestle with a temptation for violence in this scene is far more exciting than a car flipping over into an unlikely fireball.
When that car does flip over, though, it’s a bold image in a long series of striking visuals. Chandor has unquestionably grown as a visual storyteller. The director and his DP Bradford Young have made a film that lives in gray areas. The aesthetic is dark and chilling. Chandor’s direction isn’t always subtle – there’s one shot of blood and oil that’s a little too obvious – but it’s a vivid portrait of Abel’s morally ambiguous story.
The writer/director has made a tough movie, both visceral and emotional. A Most Violent Year proves Chandor is the real deal.
The Upside: Isaac and Chastain deliver demanding performances; Chandor’s nuanced script and direction; a gangster story without any overt glamor; the most triumphant moment in the movie is when a character doesn’t use a gun; Duh, Albert Brooks
The Downside: A few heavy-handed choices
On the Side: Javier Bardem was originally cast as Abel Morales.