In the winter of 1981, New York City was an altogether different and unrecognizable place from the tourist friendly metropolis it is today. Crime was rampant, from the petty thieves on the street to the politicians and lawmen who controlled the streets and businesses. In 1981 that crime turned to violence and made the year the single most dangerous in the city’s history. Writer/director J. C. Chandor’s (Margin Call, All is Lost) newest film A Most Violent Year finds itself in the midst of this violence and captures how good intentions can slowly erode in an environment like ‘80’s New York City.
A Most Violent Year mimics the unforgettable work of Francis Ford Coppola and the late Sidney Lumet in a way that feels like the classic Hollywood dramas of the 70’s and early 80’s. Their films found the perfect balance between grand melodrama and pronounced cinematic style to convey stories of incredible intensity and world-heavy weight. A Most Violent Year owes a lot of its look, story, and themes to films like The Godfather but its focus on the ethics of industry and politics gives it a modern distinction.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), an upwardly mobile Latin American who now co-owns a heating oil company with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), seeks to expand and revolutionize his company through the purchase of a Brooklyn property. Abel and his lawyer (Albert Brooks) know that the investment in the waterside property is a gamble. They have to pay off the sum of $2 million in less than a month if they mean to secure their acquisition. This challenge is coupled with the growing threat of violence surrounding the hijacking of several of Abel’s tanker-trucks as they deliver his goods from the docks to his storage tanks.
Abel knows that the corruption and violence between rival companies oil companies is all just part of the business but what makes his story unique is his determination not to involve himself in this mob-mentality. While Abel’s specific motivations are intentionally unclear, beyond his belief in the American Dream, the film paints him as an attempted reformer who desires to break himself away from his wife’s mob family and business practices. This puts Abel up against his two-faced competitors, fickle bankers, and the Teamsters union chief who is strong-arming him into equipping his drivers with illegal handguns.
All of these moving parts and relationships are handled magnificently and are given just enough time not to distract from Abel’s core story while still being fleshed out enough to impact dramatically. Ron Patane’s editing allows images to linger just slightly longer than they should. As a result the pacing is allowed to come to a slow boil and every second of the picture is filled with a tremendous sense of dread that with every second, gesture, word, and decision Abel’s whole world could come crashing down. Abel and the audience suspect that any deviation from his difficult path of non-violence will spring to life a system of violence that will grow into something wholly out of his control.
Oscar Isaac is unrecognizable as Abel, after his role as a homeless folk artist in Inside Llewyn Davis, and plays the character with an incredible amount of control and ferocity, fitting to a character that is on the brink of losing that very control. His overcoat is impeccably clean amidst the snowy, dirt and salt-caked landscapes of New York City, as if to physically assert his moral and physical superiority to the world he has to conduct himself in.
Abel is undermined by his own wife, who is quick to resort to the methods of her mob associated father. Anna keeps two sets of books for the company and even brings a handgun into the house to protect her family. If Abel thought dealing with his competitors was difficult, they are nothing against Jessica Chastain’s Anna. Chastain gets right in Isaac’s face and asserts her position as a mother that will not accept failure or compromise for both her family and business. When the cops show up at their house, Chastain oozes charm and courteousness one second and moments later transforms into a wolf, ready to attack. Like Abel, her wardrobe reveals much about her personality, particularly that she is willing to utilize her sexuality to manipulate others.
That world is brought to life wonderfully by cinematographer Bradford Young, who is riding hot off of his work in Selma. The rich blacks of Gordon Willis’ cinematography in The Godfather: Part II return here, as characters lurk in the relative safety of the unlit corners of this world. The rest of Young’s world is revealed in a rusty yellow light that calls forth the griminess of Brooklyn and the oils that Abel’s company sells. Alex Ebert, the frontman for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, provides a score to the film that starts triumphant with blaring trumpets, pounding piano, and electronic hymnals and slowly strips itself down, instrument by instrument, until the film’s proceedings are dominated mostly by a terrifying silence.
J. C. Chandor’s direction is so confident and cohesive that it allows all of these elements to coalesce into an experience that never lets up from the start to finish. Close-ups combined with the moody score and shadowed lighting infuse dialogue scenes with dangerous pretense, as if any moment horrible violence could erupt. When Abel chases down a hijacker of one of his trucks through the graffiti-covered New York subway system of the 1980’s, the film feels like just about anything could happen. This level of potent drama is rare in any form of narrative storytelling.
Abel’s quest to prove himself better than the world he’s involved in becomes that of the audience as well. The lack of specificity behind his motives asks audiences to question their own capitalistic motives as they operate in America’s dog-eat-dog society. A Most Violent Year places Abel in confrontations with all of the various people he has been on his rise to the top and asks him to consider just how morally superior he actually is. What concessions are made on his path to success and are his concessions hidden behind the façade of the “more right” choice?