The title refers to a particular period in New York City’s history. A quick, opening shot of the Manhattan skyline with the twin towers still in place indicates an earlier time. It’s the winter of 1981; statistically, one of the city’s most violent years.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) was once a truck driver who met the boss’ daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), married her, saved his money, then bought the business. The business is heating oil and Abel is doing his best to keep his head above legal waters; he’s operating his expanding company as clean as he can. But it’s not easy. His competition doesn’t always operate by the same rules.
When we first meet Abel (pronounced Ah-bell), he’s jogging; ever moving forward, always reaching ahead; an immigrant wanting and working hard for his part of the American dream. In another part of town, one of Abel’s truck drivers is robbed at gun point. The young man is brutally beaten then thrown from the truck. For Abel, the timing couldn’t be worse. He’s financially risking everything by buying a new, larger home for his family while depositing a massive sum for the purchase of an abandoned waterfront fuel yard. “I like to own the things I use,” he states. But there are problems.
In addition to having his oil deliveries hijacked, there’s a local district attorney called Lawrence (Selma’s David Oyelowo, once again delivering a perfect American accent) whose about to open an investigation into perceived illegalities behind Abel’s business, plus the head of the truck driver’s union wants his men to carry guns – a move Abel is vehemently against – not to mention that someone tried to break into his new home in the middle of the night. “Probably just wanted the TV,” Abell assures his wife, though later, when his youngest finds a loaded gun dropped in the snow near the front door and starts to play with the weapon, it’s clear that the potential intruder was trying to send a different kind of message.
A Most Violent Year is a slow burn that quickly draws you in to Abel’s mounting dilemmas from the moment we first meet him. He’s a good guy, he carefully considers every option before acting and he wants the best, not only for his family but for everyone who works for him. His father-in-law was different. He operated in murkier circles, and it’s the shadows of those earlier days that have suddenly come to haunt Abel’s Standard Heating Company. Abel’s working hard. He’s making his business thrive, but the competition doesn’t like it.
“These men are cowards,” Abel insists. “They’re too weak to make a living or even fight with their own hands. They’re too stupid to think of anything else to do.”
It’s hard to believe that this is the same Oscar Isaac we saw in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. The actor appeared in previous films – The Nativity Story, Sucker Punch among them – but it was working in the Coen Brothers’ ode to the Greenwich Village folk scene of ’61 that caught attention. With A Most Violent Year Isaac firmly establishes himself as a considerable screen presence. He’s fascinating to watch. There’s an inner strength to Abel, an anger kept under wraps, threatening to explode at any moment. Like his deliberate, mannered speech patterns, he calculates every move, never rushing a response, always wanting whatever he’s doing to be the right thing.
Jessica Chastain’s Anna is different. She might not be her father’s daughter, but she leans closer to her father’s style of doing things. In a telling scene where on a late night drive Abel’s car accidentally hits a deer, Abel stands over the deer’s body carefully considering how he should put the unfortunate animal out of its misery. Anna suddenly walks up behind her husband and immediately fires several bullets into the whimpering animal from her handgun. With job accomplished, she walks back to the car, unfazed.
Despite the title, the violence in A Most Violent Year is muted. There’s a continual, underlining threat throughout that haunts practically every scene, even though this is really a drama with limited action. However, in one terrific sequence a chase ensues where Abel speeds through the back streets of the city, closely pursuing one of his stolen oil trucks. It begins in a car, then on foot, then on the subway. It’s not The French Connection but within the context of this film, it’s every bit as exciting.
This is director J.C. Chandor’s third film – a fourth, Deepwater Horizon is currently in production ready for a 2016 release – and each time he’s offered up something fresh, beginning with Kevin Spacey’s Margin Call, followed by Robert Redford’s All Is Lost, and now with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, and it’s his best to date.
The film was released at the end of last year in order to qualify for voting consideration. Even though most audiences won’t be seeing it until now, technically this is a 2014 film. Despite Oscar overlooking the drama in every category – a huge mistake – A Most Violent Year is a great film. It remains one of the best of last year.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)