Set in New York’s outer boroughs in 1981 – a year of record crime rates in the city – J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is an absorbing urban drama about honor, ambition, loyalty and ethical calculations, all set against the improbably action-packed backdrop of the home-heating industry.
The film’s protagonist, Abel Morales, is a man on the move. A businessman who started out as an oil truck driver, he now owns the company and is trying to buy a crucial piece of land alongside the East River. Played by Oscar Isaac in a watchful, thoughtfully paced performance that recalls Al Pacino in “The Godfather,” Morales is determined to bring personal pride and his own brand of striver’s politesse to the competitive industry he’s adopted. Even when his drivers are brutally hijacked while making their daily runs, he refuses to allow them to arm themselves. “Always take the fancy option,” he advises new recruits, referring to the coffee-or-tea moment when they make household sales calls.
He has clearly followed his own advice, from the impeccable but slightly ill-fitting camel hair coat he wears like a talisman to his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who when things get ugly asks her husband if he wants her to call in reinforcements from her mobbed-up family in Brooklyn. Continuing the fascinating subtext symbolized in the outerwear of “A Most Violent Year,” Anna’s coat is a wide-shouldered, dramatically belted trench that suits her Lady Macbeth-like rigor.
Chandor, whose previous films were “Margin Call” and “All Is Lost,” gracefully evokes the tone and atmosphere of 1980s New York, working with fabulous cinematographer Bradford Young to create a washed-out palette and brutalist visual style that evokes Sidney Lumet at his most gritty and unadorned. Isaac and Chastain are often photographed against vast, empty spaces: Whether shot in a waterfront industrial park or in their own chilly, ultra-modern home, these compositions reinforce the film’s tenor of unmoored isolation. Morales has a series of encounters – with the Hasidic Jews he’s buying the property from, with his beleaguered lawyer (Albert Brooks, perfect as always) and with a local district attorney (David Oyelowo) – but the conversations don’t propel the narrative as much as punctuate it with yet more ambiguity and doubt.
If “A Most Violent Year” has a weakness, it’s in that structural looseness. The story is a ticking clock (Morales is racing to piece together the financing for his big deal), but Chandor resists the temptation to juice up the urgency. The result is a movie that feels like an assemblage of scene studies rather than the taut urban thrillers with which it shares its visual and philosophical DNA. These flaws are particularly evident in a third act that depends more on contrivance, convenient elisions and left-field reversals than organic logic for its impact.
Still, “A Most Violent Year” is an engrossing, often beautiful film, and a breakout opportunity for Isaac, whose similarly self-contained performance as a sadly self-aware folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis” was unfortunately overlooked last year. With his compact physicality and bottomless brown eyes, he’s a commanding screen presence, even when he’s saying nothing.
‘A Most Violent Year’
Rated: R for language and some violence
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
Directed by: J.C. Chandor