Like his biblical namesake, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) is a man who strives to do the right thing. He's the ambitious owner of a heating oil business, but unlike most others in his industry, he wants to play by the rules. Abel is a firm believer in the American Dream: work hard, stay focused on your goal and eventually you will succeed. He has just brokered a deal for for the purchase of a fuel oil terminal, which will allow him to significantly expand his business. The only catch: he must close on the property by making a full payment within thirty days. Abel doesn't anticipate that this will be a problem, but he is mistaken. Like his biblical namesake, he will face consequences for the decisions he has made.
The title of the film refers to 1981, when there were over 120,000 robberies and more than 2,100 murders in New York City. Abel's business has been directly affected by the increase in criminal activity, as several of his trucks have been hijacked, his employees have been beaten and over 100,000 gallons of fuel have been stolen. He suspects his competitors to be responsible, but no one confesses to the crime. Meanwhile, the city's Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo, Selma) announces that he's planning to launch an investigation into Abel's business, the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety, War of the Worlds) starts making serious demands and Abel's financial backers start getting cold feet. As if these problems weren't enough, Abel's wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) begins to feel that their family is in danger, and accuses Abel of failing to adequately protect them.
A Most Violent Year certainly isn't the first film to offer a portrait of One Good Man attempting to maintain his dignity in a corrupt world, but writer/director J.C. Chandor's take on that notion is knottier and less simplistic than most. Many artists have suggested that the American Dream is a lie. Chandor's film insists that it's very real indeed – it's just that achieving it comes at a high price. It's a film that understands that men become criminals not in a mustache-twirling moment of villainy, but in small steps and half-measures. Temporary adjustments become permanent, minor compromises become major and good intentions pave a pathway to both heaven and hell.
After three features which superficially appear to have little in common, Chandor's voice is slowly but surely beginning to reveal itself. Both this film and his remarkable debut Margin Call express a sense of unease with America's identity, and even the survival drama All is Lost plays as as a metaphorical examination of this subject (if you give it a Redford-esque squint, anyway). He's also drawn to strong, heavy symbolism, and there are moments in A Most Violent Year in which he seems almost too eager to provide blatant symbolism for his ideas (a shot involving blood and oil springs to mind). Even if he lays it on a little thick at times, he has a confidence which makes him feel like an old master. This effort has the moody unease and thematic weight of a great '70s drama, the kind that Lumet or Coppola or Polanski might have been drawn to (never mind that the film is set in the early '80s).
Oscar Isaac does tremendous work in the central role, and he doesn't play the part the way you might expect him to. He is a man experiencing the trials of Job, but he's almost alarmingly cool-headed in the face of adversity. He maintains his composure, rarely raises his voice and always remains keenly analytical. During his lowest moments, he has a way of making desperate pleas sound like rational arguments. Isaac offers a level of low-key forcefulness that stirs up echoes of Al Pacino's early work – there's more than a little Michael Corleone in the character and the performance. Between this film and his jagged, wounded turn in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has established himself as one of the most exciting young actors of his generation.
Speaking of which, the ever-wondrous Jessica Chastain does exceptional work as Abel's wife, who handles all of his bookkeeping and who at least casually resembles a 20th century Lady Macbeth. She bluntly confronts her husband with the realities he chooses to ignore, and though she loves him, she's far more interested in positive results than positive intentions. Early on, Anna seems to switch rather quickly from professional associate to doting companion to angry antagonist, and I wondered if Chastain's performance was atypically inconsistent. No. Anna will be who she needs to be. She adapts. She wishes she could convince her husband to do the same. The supporting cast is littered with talented character actors (including a genial but slightly sinister Albert Brooks as Abel's right-hand man and a touchingly earnest Elyes Gabel as a paranoid truck driver), but it's the push/pull relationship between Isaac and Chastain that anchors the film.
There's one instantly iconic scene in which Abel lectures his sales force on how to do their jobs effectively. In this scene, Isaac delivers the film's most essential line: “You'll never do anything harder than staring someone in the eye and telling them the truth.” That line inspires memories of a line from Brian De Palma's Scarface (“The eyes, Chico. They never lie.”), and Alex Ebert's score subtly conjures memories of that film, as well. The music occasionally feels like a tentative variation on a Moroder theme; a sketch that isn't quite willing to fully admit what it is. Likewise, Abel seems unwilling to admit to himself that may be transforming into Tony Montana – that he may, in fact, be the sort of bad guy he claims to despise. This may well be the story of a hero's fall and a villain's rise (a reading that's certainly subject to interpretation), but we always feel for Abel, because Chandor makes it clear that the problem is much larger than one man's choices. The film is a tragedy, but it might just as easily play as an inspirational tale for some of America's most powerful businessmen. After all, it's the story of a guy who picks himself up by his bootstraps and does what it takes to succeed. What's more American than that?
A Most Violent Year
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 2014