In his 2011 debut film “Margin Call“, writer/director J.C. Chandor has a Wall Street executive speak three supposed key skills to managing the world of stocks: “Be first, be smarter, or cheat.” With his latest feature, “A Most Violent Year“, Chandor presents the story of a man trying desperately to stick to the first two skills and whole-heartedly avoid the third. Chandor doesn’t make it look easy, especially considering he sets this test of a man in one of the most violent times in American history; New York City in 1981. Regardless, the soul of a dedicated man is hard to break.
That man is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an established immigrant selling heating oil in New York City. Amidst all of the dirty deals and bloodshed in the city, Abel tries his best to keep out of gangster life. He’s a decent man in an indecent time dealing with men stealing his delivery trucks and selling the oil to competitors, an irksome District Attorney (David Oyelowo), and trying to close on a new facility while being strapped for cash. Fortunately Abel has the support of his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) a strong and stylish blonde who gets her thick skin from her father, a mob man himself. She is proud of her husband’s success and defends her family in the face of doubters, but she’s getting tired of her husband frowning upon dirty deals and not accepting them as the norm. With more robberies, money getting tighter and options running low, Abel must decide what kind of business man he really wants to be.
Chandor’s movie is one that requires great patience to be enjoyed. He doesn’t rush his actors or let the image of a faded and frigid New York City go to waste. With the help of cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor never wastes a shot of his actors or his setting. He shows each emotion hit his characters and the imposing structure of New York City. His writing is solid as well, but nothing that truly flies off the page. Chandor gives Abel and Anna their own monologues that establish their character, then lets their physical actions speak for themselves. Again, it takes time in-between scenes and words to have these characters build to a boiling point.
Thankfully, Chandor knows how to pick his actors. Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis“) continues to make bids for being an acting heavyweight. He’s imposing, not for being scary but for his stature and composure. It’s as if he’s got the power of The Godfather with none of the criminal notes. He wears his soul on his sleeve and shows physical struggle when his back is against the wall. All the bite in this movie comes from Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar“), the mob daughter whose extended nails might as well be dragon claws. Everything from her posture to her hair bob screams something fierce underneath her red lipstick. Chastain sinks her teeth into this role and it feels effortless. She and Isaac, both Juilliard alums, are perfect foils for each other and their romance seems natural. Isaac’s Abel keeps his soul clean at all cost, while Chastain’s Anna keeps her family secure at all costs. They both crave success, but differ on how to get there. The plot could simply be about Abel and Anna’s clashes and comfort of each other and it would still be riveting. Both actors have great support in the likes of Oyelowo (also acting gold thanks to “Selma“), Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer, and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s desperate employees. Everyone around Abel is just picking away at his soul waiting to see the nobel man break.
If there are faults with “A Most Violent Year”, though there are few, it’s that it doesn’t dig deep enough into the mind of Abel and Anna. There are many more skeletons in Anna’s closet than she lets on, but Abel sees that ignorance is bliss. But he misses one of the points he gets across in the early going; the hardest thing anyone will do is look someone in the eye and tell him the truth. Anna has probably never done that to Abel, for her or her family’s sake, but it would’ve made a much more interesting movie. Look at “Gone Girl“; who is a better sparring partner than your sexual partner? It’s a shame that the movie missed out on that opportunity and go for a more subtle end product.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars