Watching JC Chandor’s expertly crafted period crime drama A Most Violent Year, it’s likely you’ll say to yourself, “this is good, but I feel like I’ve seen it before.” This is an understandable reaction, and one that might even persist after the film’s explosive ending. Also likely is that the film will stay with you long after you’ve seen it, and it’s then when the film’s true innovation and narrative aspiration becomes apparent.
The numbing NYC winter of 1981 is the setting for Chandor’s examination of the weight of capitalist expectation. Entrepreneurial Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is determined to close a deal that would allow him to expand his booming heating business, contingent upon his ability to secure funds and satisfy backers. He’s looking to buy property on the waterfront that would facilitate the import/export of materials, thereby allowing him to cut costs and maximize profits. His story is spectacularly American: Abel worked his way up the ladder from driver to owner, along the way marrying Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose oft-rumored/never shown mobster father was the original proprietor of the family business. The stars seem to be aligning for Abel’s success until the truck drivers transporting his product start being hijacked and injured, the trucks winding up in the hinterlands of the boroughs’ railyards and ditches.
It’s clear from the outset the Abel is a good guy trying to run a fair business, as evidenced by his constant reiteration of this in interactions with scumbags, and the unflappable confidence Oscar Isaac’s cool demeanor injects into the character. Anna is the firecracker of the duo, keeping (and secretly cooking) the books and being the hardass when need be. She supports Abel in his quest for a better life for themselves and their children, but she’s not afraid to make the tough decisions, like when she shoots a dying deer to put it out of its misery. You get the feeling she’d have no qualms doing the same for a human foe.
When the drivers start getting systematically targeted in an attempt to disrupt Abel’s progress, it is recommended by a trusted associate that the men start carrying handguns, semi-legally, to protect themselves and the precious cargo. Abel is adamant that this is the wrong recourse, and is determined to take the high road by confronting his competitors directly, appealing to them with rationale rather than rashness. One or more of them is siphoning his fuel and injuring his drivers, but until he knows which one he can only go about his business with as much dignity as he can muster. He’s a textbook example of faking it until he makes it.
Chandor’s script is a slow-burn, with the titular violence coming primarily in the interpersonal dynamics between Abel and Anna. Chastain sears through each of Anna’s feisty monologues, giving her best “bitch, please” glance at every turn. In a pivotal scene, she condescends to Abel’s self-righteous martyrdom by informing him in no uncertain terms that it’s been her sly connections and financial skimming that has kept him afloat for so long. It’s unclear if his ultimate resignation at this is due to his wife’s betrayal or his inability to succeed on his own terms. Either emasculating option would seem a cross too great to bear.
Actionable violence takes the form of a chase sequence, perhaps the year’s best, during which Abel confronts the man who has been stealing from him. He attempts to run him down, then chases him through what seems like the entirety of Manhattan’s D train line until he finally gets an answer to the million dollar question, “who do you work for?” The answer, that the guy works for none of Abel’s competitors but is instead just a run-of-the-mill thief, manifests Chandor’s ultimate point that one should hate the game, not the player. All this time Abel has been fixated on finding out who has been trying to bring him down when the answer is any and everything, and no one in particular.
This is the primary way that A Most Violent Year distinguishes itself so singularly from other recent films about the American dream or the “ at what price glory?” narrative (such as the hyperbolically overrated and obvious Whiplash). Chandor presents Abel as a paragon of moral certitude even when it would be easier, and even more fun, for him to be shooting people up and using his wife’s back-alley channels. That the protagonist is a hero rather than an antihero is thrilling, and complex, and a throwback in the most revealing way. Abel is narrowly outsourced from a world which wants to drag him down with it, but his good faith and hard work won’t allow the easy road to be taken. In this way the film is almost more easily understood as a traditional melodrama, only here the unshakable goodness comes in the form of a man rather than a put-upon female.
Bradford Young’s evocative cinematography continues here in a year in which he’s already shot the other best period film, Selma. Chandor is bolstered by two non-flashy but essential supporting turns from Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and counsel, and MVP of the decade David Oyelowo as the city official looking into the legality of his business. Isaac and Chastain have never been better, and here they’re both given the chance to play against type, showing that they’re among the most versatile and exciting actors of their generation (fitting since they’re former Juilliard classmates). Together they help make up an intoxicating film that proceeds with such confidence in its aims that it might feel a bit disconcerting. Abel is not a man who is easily shaken, but after watching this film, you may be.