“A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the New York City of 1981 which was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. It was just before crazy hairdos, Madonna, “Miami Vice,” and MTV became a reality, and it was also a time where doing business in the Big Apple became fraught with unbearable tension. Many people fled to the safety of the suburbs as immigrants arrived who were searching for the American dream, and I don’t just mean Tony Montana. In some ways, the movie’s title is misleading as this is not one filled with wall-to-wall violence. Instead, it’s more about the violence hiding beneath the surface which is just waiting to burst out as one immigrant in particular looks to start a legitimate business, but he soon discovers that the road to success is paved with devious intentions.
Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, and this movie starts with him putting a down payment on a piece of land in Brooklyn where he looks to expand his small heating-oil business to a significant degree. Abel has a strong business partner in his wife, the straight out of Brooklyn Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a known gangster, he bought the business from. Abel makes it no secret that he intends to run this business in a legitimate fashion, but it doesn’t take long to see how incredibly difficult that will be for him.
Just as Abel’s plans look to be coming together, he finds himself dealing with competitors who are ever so eager to snag a bigger share of the market. On top of that, thieves keep attacking his drivers, stealing his fuel and selling it to illegitimate markets, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s accounting practices which just might reveal that he’s not the law abiding citizen he constantly claims to be. Suffice to say, this man has a lot on his plate and he now has only three days to finalize his deal on the land he wants to purchase.
What’s fascinating about “A Most Violent Year” is how all the characters are stuck in a morally gray area throughout. The difference between right and wrong is impossible to sort out because the overriding concern for Abel and Anna is to close the deal before everything falls apart and their dreams are destroyed. The movie really puts you in Abel’s shoes to where you get a full sense of his desperation to keep his head above water. What he comes to discover is that he cannot depend on others in the business community to help him with his escalating troubles. In his attempt to expand his business, he finds that he’s living in a time where it’s every man for himself.
I loved watching Isaac as he imbues Abel with such a strong aura of confidence (some may say overconfidence) as he tries to gain the trust of those who are in a position to help him. To be honest, it’s that kind of confidence I would love to exude in my own life. As “A Most Violent Year” goes on, we see that confidence start to slip ever so slightly which leads to a number of intense moments Isaac has no problem delivering on. This is the same actor who so memorably broke through into our consciousness with his performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and with “A Most Violent Year” he shows just how far his range as an actor goes. Even when his character becomes desperate in his attempts to make his business expansion a reality, Isaac maintains a commanding presence throughout.
But as good as Isaac is, he almost gets the movie stolen out from under him by Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Anna is a scorcher as she makes clear who the better businessman is in the family, and Chastain molds her into a Lady Macbeth-like character who is far cleverer than anyone will ever give her credit for. Knowing she’s a native of Northern California, I thought casting her as someone born and raised in Brooklyn might be a mistake. Well shame on me for thinking that because Chastain once again proves why she is a talent to be reckoned with.
“A Most Violent Year” was written and directed J.C. Chandor who also gave us “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” All of his films to date have dealt with people caught up in crisis situations that continue to spiral out of their control, and this one proves to be every bit as enthralling. Chandor gives us a highly specific view of 1981 that never feels clichéd or obvious to the decade, and he takes us on a very tense journey with someone who may dress far better than I ever will, but who also exhibits the same anxieties and concerns we all do. His attention to character is exemplary, and he leaves on the edge of our seats in more ways than one.
It would be so nice to do business without having to go against the things we were taught to believe in, but we eventually learn business in general is never fair (and I don’t just say this because I live in Los Angeles). I found myself never quibbling too much about the things Abel ends up doing in “A Most Violent Year” because I have a very nasty feeling I wouldn’t approach his situation all that differently. Back in a time where the established way of doing business ceased to exist, I imagine I would have made the same compromises Abel is forced to make here. Whether one can live with that is a whole other story, and “A Most Violent Year” tells it in a very compelling manner that holds your attention throughout.