Set in the brutal winter of 1981 in New York City, the terrific new film A Most Violent Year covers a troubled time in the city’s history which saw record numbers for murders and violent crimes citywide. Fittingly, it maintains a chillingly tense atmosphere where the threat of violence is always high and the sense of desperation and danger is overwhelming. In his third and best effort as a director, J.C. Chandor uses this setting to tell a gripping morality tale about hardships of honest ambition and the overwhelming temptation to give into corruption.
In yet another impressive leading role, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the struggling owner of a heating oil company on the verge of collapse due to his truck drivers routinely getting ambushed by an unknown band of assailants. In a last ditch effort to save the business, he attempts to secure a sought-after waterfront property through a 1.5 million dollar down payment but due to his company’s complicated legal history, he finds that there isn’t a bank in town who will loan the necessary funds. To add to Abel’s surmounting stress, his wife Anna, played with ruthless vigor by Jessica Chastain, threatens to get her infamous mobster father involved with their affairs if Abel is unable to sort things out himself.
The chemistry between Isaac and Chastain is outstanding and gives the movie a tempestuous core on which the rest of the story hinges. Their power dynamic constants fluctuates but in small and subtle ways. Abel is an honorable businessman who knows how to fight fair but is woefully unprepared to retaliate against the criminals who threaten his well-being. Anna respects her husband but grows unwilling to tolerate his seeming lack of commitment to do all that is necessary to protect their way of life. Naturally, confrontations arise between the two and their struggle to simultaneously understand and push one another leads to dialogue that reveals depths of disparity between their characters.
Despite its title, A Most Violent Year is not an especially violent film but that aspect lends itself to part of its brilliance: it’s the constant, impending threat of violence around every corner that is much more captivating than endless shootouts or bloody showdowns. It doesn’t fetishize violence in the way that some action movies can but instead, it treats it as an inevitable force capable of reshaping the mindsets of even the most principled and respectable of men. Its corrupting presence looms over every frame and almost feels like a main character in the movie itself.
Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot the sublime Selma last year, contributes to this air of menace with wide shots of snowy landscapes that have characters frequently guarding themselves against the elements. The music by Alex Ebert also fills things out nicely as well, with ominous organ and synth tones that are reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning Interstellar score from last year. Everything comes together to make A Most Violent Year a most compelling tale of ambition and survival amongst the most strenuous of circumstances.