Agreeably hellish, pleasingly pulpy, and antiseptically tight, A Most Violent Year is a treacherous, exacting anti-thriller with a rich sense of time and place; a nocturnal fantasy that confounds the mobster mould; and a sterling essay in inner strength. Beautifully, almost stubbornly understated and overflowing with a heightened sense of reality, it drifts breezily and never feels rushed.
In New York City, 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), an ambitious immigrant, is the hard-working owner of Standard Oil, an up-and-coming heating oil company. When his trucks are repeatedly hijacked by competitors and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Middle of Nowhere) investigates Standard for price fixing and tax evasion, his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty), urges Abel to fight fire with fire. Refusing to stoop to violence, Abel struggles to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.
Expertly controlled, tightly coiled, morally nuanced, and marvellously constructed, A Most Violent Year wastes little time living up to its name, though it’s a small-scale film with deceivingly big stakes: the violence of the title is more implied than seen. It’s so well made, multilayered, and focused as an endurance test that we refuse to turn away from the events unfolding before our eyes. Seductive and ablaze with threat, three days of snowballing misfortune culminate in an inevitable ethical confrontation of epic proportions.
A Most Violent Year provides ample room for its central pair to flex their professional dominance. Bled of their self-assurance, drop by drop, Isaac and Chastain are dynamite together; their scenes crackle and radiate genuine heat. Isaac is an implosive powerhouse in a world where nothing is held sacred. His subdued, charismatic performance evokes Al Pacino as the young Michael Corleone. Chastain is unsurprisingly splendid: her Armani-clad mafia princess is a Reagan-era Lady Macbeth.
A lot of movies spin their wheels fast and careen out of control. Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) has no such inclination. A Most Violent Year’s minimalist approach will take many viewers aback, as their expectations are thwarted by Chandor’s almost-perverse pleasure in stopping shy of the boiling point. A Most Violent Year is all about the simmer. Chandor also has a golden touch with actors that’s beginning to rival Clint Eastwood. Chandor sets a tempo that allows Isaac to play his character with restraint while giving Chastain the time she needs to manipulate behind the throne.
Capturing the jaundiced look of the Scorsese-Coppola crime era, Bradford Young’s cinematography is staggering, transforming bleak wastelands and mansions into visions of light, as if we’re seeing everything like Abel does, America as beauty incarnate. It’s all muted grey tones and darkness-drenched interiors, camel-coloured tans and browns as though made on location in 1981. It’s not a flashy film, just a very good one. The abrupt bloodshed and flowing black fuel is straight out of There Will Be Blood.
A Most Violent Year is not a revolutionary or thematically dense motion picture, and a stronger pulse under the lapels would make us care much more. Yet Chandor follows the psychologically penetrating tradition of Alan Pakula and Francis Ford Coppola, observing crime as a microcosm of society. He’s got an eye on the vacant throne of Sidney Lumet, and he’s steadily stalking out a career in that direction.
The most interesting film of Chandor’s career thus far, another notch in the belts of Isaac and Chastain, and perhaps the best film of 2014 not to receive a single Oscar nomination: if A Most Violent Year fails, it fails with class and dignity, and its head held high. It makes you nostalgic for a time when the world was worse, and the films were better.