J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is almost lyrical in its beauty, exuding a sepia-toned environment that captures essence rather than exploiting nostalgia of the time period. It’s 1981, said to be one of New York’s most violent years, and, paradoxically, A Most Violent Year doesn’t focus on the incredibly violent; it focuses on what happens between all the violence and on the outskirts of all the madness. We follow Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who runs Standard Oil, a heating oil company that has been plagued by frequent hijackings of the company’s utility trucks, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost materials. Abel is a man who tries to have a firm moral compass, believing in the good of people and resisting the temptation to give into complete and total corruption, despite being heavily influenced to do so by his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).
On top of the company losing money with every hijacking, a District Attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is in the process of investigating Standard Oil’s fraudulent activity, such as price fixing and tax evasion. This brings Abel’s company and dreams down even more, leading him to seek the purchase of an oil terminal on a river bank with the leader of Jewish Chassidim (Jerry Adler). This purchase would allow for more storage for Abel’s company, which will help for when fuel prices lower in the summertime and eventually rise during the winter. He tries to manage this all while minimizing relations with gangsters and attempting not to turn into the person he promised himself he didn’t want to become.
A Most Violent Year’s marketing campaign made it seem as if this film was a hardened gangster epic. The film itself, however, finds ways to work against that stereotype, acting as the contrasting force or the “anti” to a great deal of gangster films thanks to the ethics of its character. Abel’s character is a fascinating one because never does he fall into the category of being an anti-hero or a traditional hero. He tows the line, and even by the end of the film, we’re not totally sure if we’re supposed to side with him because we’ve seen him do equally admirable and contemptible things.
The problem with Abel’s methods is that while he’s willing to play fair, he has found that his business, and the business world in general, calls for grittier, more devious play, which is why we see him in the mess he’s in now. Writer/director Chandor explores how man gets sucked into this world whilst trying to function in the business world, almost suggesting that the system encourages and eventually forces such drastic illegalities to take place over time. The idea that large-scale business operations and closed-door corruption exist in unison is by no means a new idea, but Chandor magnifies the idea through an intriguing lens, giving us a character that is trying to function on this dirty playing field and learning this idea the hard way.
Abel, at times, acts like Job, if we’re going to toy a bit with the name of Abel, presuming it has biblical relevance here. Abel’s morality is tested on various occasions, and like Job, in some respects, he tries to stay true to what he believes, but once he recognizes he’s in a business that demands risk and self-interest, it’s difficult for him to stay on this particular path of righteousness.
It only helps that Abel’s struggle is humanized and brought to life by a character actor as powerful and talented as Oscar Isaac. Isaac, who completely won me over in the emotionally-affecting Inside Llewyn Davis, through just two acclaimed starring roles, has proved to be an exceptional actor we must keep our eyes on or else he’ll slip further under the radar than he has. Isaac’s strength comes in the frequent subtleties he infuses in Abel. We often see him trying to bottle all his rage and impulsive emotions up, only allowing his anger to slip in front of people like his wife or his attorney (Albert Brooks) but in a very sporadic manner. Isaac’s portrayal of a man grappling with all he can bear is powerful stuff, and it’s these ordinary little, true-to-life inclusions that make him explode on screen.
He’s so good that it makes me wish Chastain was given more of a character here instead of the instigating wife. Her persistent belittling of what she perceives is her husband’s passivity makes her character lose any kind of narrative or emotional relevance as we see her just as another variation on the nagging wife cliché. To be fair, however, Isaac commands so much ground here that it’s difficult for veterans like Brooks to keep up with him while in the same frame, but Chastain’s character and acting abilities are sorely undermined here.
A Most Violent Year is like an enormous piece of art on a large, spacious canvas with many colors, patterns, and designs. It’s hard to take it all in while it’s happening right before your eyes, but once you digest it and see it through, it becomes something you can’t take your eyes off and, in turn, appreciate on many different levels.
9 out of 10 stars