In J.C. Chandor’s methodically tense crime drama, A Most Violent Year, the American Dream is ripe for the taking for those who have the fortitude to reach into murky waters and pull it out. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the prototypical self-made man who has worked his way from driving trucks to be being the co-owner, along with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), of a heating and oil company. Inheriting the business from Anna’s mobster father, Abel strives to grow his company legitimately and, both in his personal and professional life, exemplify the high standards that come with being the best.
Set in 1981, the year when violent crimes reached its peak in New York City, the film quietly observes Abel as he attempt to take the moral high road in a world crumbling under the weight of crime and corruption. Given only thirty days to close a deal that would secure the waterfront property he needs to expand his business, Abel’s ethics are tested when numerous walls, which potentially impede on the deal, begin closing in on him. His sales people are being assaulted, men with guns are lurking outside his lavish new home at night, and someone is stealing his oil trucks and reselling his oil. On top of all that, an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) is planning to bring down Abel’s company for possible tax evasion and fraud.
Similar to iconic characters such as Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico, who populate the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet respectively, Abel finds it extremely difficult to be an honourable man in a dishonourable world. His measured approach and compassion is seen as a sign of weakness. Abel’s own wife coldly acknowledges that he is not the man her father is, a cutting remark that only solidifies how much Anna embodies her father’s ruthless ideology. The fascinating thing about Abel is that he is wise enough to see the ramifications of certain actions, hence his refusal to illegally arm drivers like Julian (Elyes Gabel), but is blind to the level of corruption that resides closer to home.
This is what makes A Most Dangerous Year such a gripping slow-burning drama. J.C. Chandor’s film not only questions the strength of Abel’s convictions, but ponders if anyone can ever be truly just when it comes to the cut throat nature of business? The film presents a climate where each individual is operating under a moral code as gray as the clouds hovering over the city skyline. There is an uneasiness that permeates the film, a sense that both Abel and the city itself, the latter plaugued with frequent news reports of murder, are one step away from errupting. Bradford Young’s cinematography presents a grimy version of the city where even the wealthy, like fellow oil magnate Peter (Alessandro Nivola), are reduced to living in solitude in cavernous and depressing fortresses. While the strong can survive in this harsh environment, it comes at a price that few are equipped to pay.
Chandor exemplifies this further through his use of running as a recurring motif in the film. For a film that evokes most of its tension through conversations, it feels fitting that it is the lengthy chases on foot, though there is one great car chase sequence, which sticks with the viewer. Abel is always shown running towards things, regardless of the high potential of danger, whereas someone like Julian, an earnest individual who wants to achieve what Abel has accomplished but does not have the cold nerves needed, has no choice but to run away from the uncertain future.
Considering the almost hushed pacing that A Most Violent Year utilizes, which is bound to irk some audience members looking for a more robust gangster film, Chandor relies heavily on his actors to keep the film moving. Fortunately, the entire ensemble, which also features an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks, rises to the challenge. Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Abel, bringing both a mixture of arrogance and vulnerability to the role. Some of his most insightful moments arrive when he is forced to swallow his pride while reaching out to his competitors and when he and Anna are arguing about the true roles each person plays in their relationship. Jessica Chastain is sensational in her Lady MacBeth-esque, by way of Brooklyn, turn as Anna. She manages to make the character both Abel’s biggest supporter and a dark reflection of the individual that might truly reside within Abel.
J.C. Chandor has already proven, with his previous films, that he knows how to craft engaging character driven stories. However, A Most Violent Year is his most ambitious film yet. Unlike most tales set within the genre, Chandor has no interest in focusing on the guns or lavish lifestyles that are commonly associated with gangsters. Instead he paints a grim portrait of a man struggling to stay true to values that carry no weight in the world. In the end Chandor forces audiences to question whether Able is truly an honourable man? Or is Able conning himself into believing that such a man even exists?