Statistically speaking, 1981 was one of the most violent years in the history of New York City. I know this because I’ve read it on the internet. A Most Violent Year is set in the winter of this year, although I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was at the beginning of the year or at the end. I’d also struggle to tell you that the film was set in New York City, because apart from a couple of shots from its outskirts, the city isn’t used much for a setting. In all honesty, I kept thinking we were in Buffalo.
Our film is led by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has become quite successful running an oil company. As the film opens, he puts a deposit down on a property, and is given 30 days to get the money for the rest of it; if he fails to get the money together in that time, he loses the property and the deposit. He thinks he’s got the loan secured at the bank, but is being threatened by a couple of different avenues. The first is a pending lawsuit by the D.A. (David Oyelowo), as well as how his trucks keep getting stolen.
At its core, A Most Violent Year is about one’s morals. Perhaps that’s why the main character’s last name is “Morales.” Subtle, right? See, Abel got to where he is in life by conducting his business properly, fairly, and legally. In A Most Violent Year, he’s tasked with deciding whether or not he’s going to stick to those morals in order to push forward. He’s pushed farther than he ever thought he would be, and gets to find out exactly the kind of person that he is as a result.
Despite the title, there isn’t actually a whole lot of violence in A Most Violent Year. There’s one shootout, really, and only one scene that has any blood. It’s mostly talking, as Abel gets lots of bad news and has to figure out, along with his wife/accountant (Jessica Chastain), how to deal with it. There’s violence surrounding him, but much like New York as a whole, it rarely becomes a focal point.
Instead, we focus on the good-natured Abel, his secretly — although not too secretly — devious wife, and all of the people surrounding him. It’s like an old-school crime drama, except there isn’t really a whole lot of crime. Really, if you were to take this story on paper and boiled it down to its simplest points, it would probably look laughably simple and probably pretty dull. But the film’s writer/director is J.C. Chandor, a man who took “Robert Redford survives on a boat for 90 minutes” and made it into an emotionally compelling thriller. He can take what might look dull on paper and turn it into a wonderful experience.
Now, there are a few points during A Most Violent Year where one might feel it’s getting a bit dull or repetitive. This does happen on occasion. The pacing is tight but the content isn’t always as fresh or original as it could be. The characters and the atmosphere help keep it tense and exciting. Mostly the characters, although there is one point at which we see a character get jumped in an innocuous situation, meaning that it could happen at any time. This is a violent period in time, after all.
Oscar Isaac might’ve had his career-best turn in Inside Llewyn Davis, but he’s quietly great in A Most Violent Year, too. There’s a subtle intensity to his performance, as well as a contemplativeness. In a showier role, albeit in far less screen time, Jessica Chastain lights up the screen as a knowing wife who might be holding secrets of her own. In lesser roles, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, and Albert Brooks make an impact with their supporting performances.
A Most Violent Year is a mostly successful film about an oil baron having to put his morals to the test during one of the most violent periods in the history of New York City. It’s interesting, has a purpose, gives us a couple of great leading performances — as well as some very strong supporting ones — and is compelling cinema for most of its running time. It has a keen focus not on the city or on its violence, but on its protagonist, and it succeeds because he’s interesting and performed wonderfully by Oscar Isaac. A Most Violent Year is a great movie.