Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious immigrant who has secured a modest toe-hold distributing heating oil. Though he’s just taken a major risk in obtaining a piece of property that will allow him to expand and thrive, his competitors are robbing his trucks and threatening the safety of his employees. To make matters worse, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a powerful organized-crime figure, is pressing him to take more illicit measures to protect his investments; and the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating his business practices, seemingly determined to uncover wrongdoing whether it exists or not.
J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, when the city reportedly saw one of the highest crime rates in its history. But the film’s violence is centered mostly on the internal wreckage left by moral compromise, as a largely honest man tries to grow and control his legitimate business in the face of criminal and ethical lapses coming from all sides.
Chandor’s films thus far has been consistent in its critique of the collateral damage of capitalism. His first feature, Margin Call, detailed shady bankers either engineering or neglecting to address the 2008 economic crash, while All Is Lost took a more allegorical tack in depicting an attempt by a supposedly powerful man to literally keep his head above water. Though it’s just as narratively driven as his debut, A Most Violent Year distinguishes itself with its greater sympathy for the ambition that must necessarily fuel success in such a dog-eat-dog system. It would be easy, and certainly expected, to paint Abel as a greedy man, or a man whose ethics are dangerously fluid. Instead, Chandor paints his central figure as a largely honorable character who tries to stick steadfastly to his principles, refusing to turn to less-acceptable means even when there’s seemingly no other option.
Unfortunately, Chandor can’t quite resist heavy-handedness in trying to get his points across
Chandor also makes the most of his chosen setting without going overboard stylistically or thematically. Films with similar subjects and settings have often turned into historical cartoons packed mostly with outlandish period details and ostentatious soundtrack choices; see, for instance, last year’s American Hustle, another broadside against capitalism’s dangerous consequences. Aside from a phenomenal, lengthy, and large handheld foot-chase sequence, however, A Most Violent Year is calmly framed in wide shots and photographed by Bradford Young in muted matte blacks, beiges and greys. It might come off as too studied were it not for a fine performance from Isaac, who appears in nearly every scene bringing to slow-burn life a man who must constantly remain collected and reasonable when everything around him is crumbling.
Unfortunately, Chandor can’t quite resist heavy-handedness in trying to get his points across, a tendency most evident in the many times characters bluntly articulate the film’s themes in their dialogue. An unexpected late reversal from Anna makes her a bit too much of a stock Lady Macbeth character, and the last two scenes feature both a too-pat moment of violence and a last-minute twist that serve to underline a bit too neatly the damage that’s been done. But these minor slips aren’t enough to undermine the confident and largely low-key thriller around them, and the film is all the more commendable for not becoming the cliched 1970s throwback gangster picture one might expect from its setting and premise. Much like its main character, its chief virtues are its modesty and a grasp that doesn’t exceed its reach.