In the fall of 1981, I visited New York City for the first time as an adult, spending a month falling in love with the metropolis. I vowed to live there some day.
Little did I know — or care — that 1981 would prove to be A Most Violent Year, with an distressingly high rate of violent crime in the city, and, thus, a perfect setting for the newest film from J.C. Chandor. In his first two films, the writer/director previously explored a financial firm in crisis (Margin Call) and a lone sailor in crisis (All Is Lost).
This time Chandor examines a businessman in crisis. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) wants to ensure the future of his oil trucking business by buying a warehouse in the city so as to ensure a steady supply for his customers. A very public investigation led by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), however, prompts a key investor to pull out, leaving Abel little choice but to seek loans from a series of ever more criminal — and dangerous — sources.
Abel is not a judgmental man, and understands the realities of doing business in the city, yet he’s always endeavored to keep his own affairs legal and above-board, to the extent possible. The temptation toward corruption is very strong, however, and he even feels pressure to compromise from his wife. Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a gangster, so she was raised tough and with little regard for the law. She challenges her husband to “get ‘er done,” in effect, or she will do it for him. Their emotional bond is too tight to dismiss as ‘opposites attract,’ making it clear that Abel’s moral fiber has always been more flexible than he’s willing to admit to himself.
Other crises, both business and personal, erupt throughout the course of the story; some remain small and get tamped down promptly, while others grow into unexpected conflagrations that threaten to burn out of control. Chandor directs with expert precision, resulting in a drama that ebbs and flows in a manner that becomes increasingly compelling.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Isaac plays a strong, steady, self-controlled man who is firmly centered on his own aspirations, determined to weather whatever challenges arise. Like a marathon runner, he shakes off every assaultive challenge on his way to the finish line, though that doesn’t mean that he’s some kind of robot. He’s also quite sensitive, well-aware how his actions affect others, and how their reactions affect him. What he chooses to do about those reactions is a different matter. How long can he keep absorbing those emotional punches before the toll begins to break him down?
Chastain is equally strong, playing a brassy, crude woman who knows she could run the business more efficiently than her husband. All that keeps her “in line,” so to speak, is her very traditional upbringing and the times in which she is living; in 1981 it was not quite so common for women to assert such control, and so she defers to her mate, even as she itches to take over. Oyelowo (as the strong-willed investigator), Albert Brooks (as an accountant), and Alessandro Nivola (as a gangster) also make strong impressions.
Much like its two lead characters, A Most Violent Year is a film that surges with emotion and authenticity. Its power lies in the range of its characterizations, and the depth of its capacity to surprise.
The film opens at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano on Friday, January 23.