ITS NAME ISN’T EXACTLY misleading, but if you went to see A Most Violent Year in the hope that you would see two hours and five minutes of violence, you might leave sorely disappointed. J.C. Chandor’s excellent period crime drama is a gripping and solemn account of an honourable man’s attempt to maintain his integrity against a backdrop of corruption and moral decay, and an exercise in subtlety and restraint.
The film concerns Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, a fuel supplier and up-and-coming businessman who struggles to deal with the hijacking of a number of his trucks in the midst of a negotiation for a shipping terminal that would permit his operation to expand significantly. Abel’s enterprise isn’t entirely legal, strictly speaking, but neither are those of his competitors and in spite of the apparent contradition Abel sees himself as a decent man and benevolent employer determined to resist a seemingly inevitable descent into gangsterism. He learns, meanwhile, that his problems are not severe enough to merit the attention of the police department in New York City, where it is one of the most violent years on record. His underhand dealings, however, are.
The dramatic title of the film betrays its subtlety: throughout the film there is little violence but an unending sense of dread punctuated–to great effect–by brief action. Director J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the screenplay, prefers terse dialogue and veiled threats to shoot-outs and explosions; consequently when the action comes it comes loudly and it comes without warning: every gun-shot, or shattering window, or screeching of tyres is forceful and jarring.
The cinematography, courtesy of Bradford Young, depicts in gorgeous fashion a city in physical and moral decay. Alex Ebert lends low-boil tension with an understated synthesised soundtrack respectful of the film’s Eighties setting. But it is Chandor’s direction which is principal success in A Most Violent Year. He has rendered here a film that moves slowly enough to tease out the tangles of a complex narrative but never becomes dull. To say something is never dull, however, is not necessarily to say it is exciting, and what the film lacks is a little cinematic panache. The ending in particular is wholly underwhelming.
The film belongs to Oscar Isaac’s character, who wrestles with his responsibilities as a father and husband and employer, and all the while bustles about striking deals with loan sharks and police chiefs. But it also belongs in a large part to Jessica Chastain, who, in between lazy drags of a cigarette turns in a fine performance as Abel’s wife Anna, a sort of consigliere-meets-Lady Macbeth who is willing–and eager–to do the things her husband will not. Their white-hot exchanges in the immaculate rooms of the mansion that symbolises their success are the best scenes of the film.
A Most Violent Year is a strong entry in the filmographies of Isaac and Chastain, both of whom have established themselves indisputably as two of the best actors of their generation. It is also very weighty offering from director J.C. Chandor, who is marking himself to be an expert executor of truly gripping cinema.