How does a (mostly) honest man working in a thoroughly corrupt industry stay on the right side of the tracks? What’s wrong with cutting corners and being shady if all of your competitors are taking extra, morally questionable steps to ensure their success? What drives people to do the things they do? These are only some of the questions that the thematically rich film A Most Violent Year covers in an intimate, very 70’s way. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) summons the ghost of Sidney Lumet with this down and dirty, early 80’s NYC fable consisting of businessmen, politicians, cops, wives, children, and the constantly shifting dynamics between men of power and those who are needed to allow that power to continue and thrive.
Every character in this slow-burn drama (with a tad of melodrama thrown in at the end) is out to get their own; everyone has an agenda and enormous reasons for wanting the things they want. When one character asks another in this beautifully written story about ethics and morals: “Why do you want this?” the question takes on multiple meanings. And when the character answers with simply: “I don’t understand your question” you know that this is a film that isn’t interested in black and white notions of good and bad, but rather, the gray areas that separate us from doing right and wrong.
A Most Violent Year carries a metaphorical title that extends more to the atmosphere of NYC in the early 80’s then it does to constant violent action, which is something that this talky, low-key, and wonderfully observed movie is most definitely not interested in. Yes, you get some fantastic foot chases and one sensational, hair-raising car chase that echoes the POV hell-ride in James Gray’s The Yards (another Lumet homage), but A Most Violent Year is all about the distinct performances and the pungent writing and the burnished, dark, early morning and late night cinematography from shooter-of-the-moment Bradford Young. His work here is elegant and smoky, all browns and blacks and golds with splashes of orange and red for accent. I loved looking at every image in this movie.
Oscar Isaac was sensational as Abel Morales, a man trying to run a home heating-oil company with his wife Anna (a juicy, sexy Jessica Chastain, playing the ultimate snake-in-the-grass), and always attempting to run an honest business without cutting too many corners. Interesting in that he’s always being “mostly good,” Abel knows he could call his wife’s gangster father for support in any number of ways (someone is jacking his oil tankers and beating up his salesmen and drivers; people are waiting for him outside his new mansion in the late hours of the night with pistols, etc.) but he doesn’t want to do that. And despite probably knowing that his wife is more than meets the eye in any number of respects, he keeps his head up, doesn’t ask too many questions, and lets the assorted pieces to his complicated business puzzle take shape. By the end of this tense and gripping drama, if you loved it as much as I did, you’ll want to know more about what happens to the various characters as the screen fades to black – I know I did.