Before heading into A Most Violent Year, we have to help you in the movie-going experience. Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s (Margin Call, Lost at Sea) latest film is hardly violent at all. Yet, the threat of it permeates throughout.
Chandor’s story takes place in 1981 in New York City, which was sadly the most violent year ever recorded in the history of that great city. And our protagonist, Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, is the owner of a heating oil company trying his best to do right in a business that has been filled with all sorts of wrong with corruption and ties to organized crime.
Yet, this immigrant’s son is eager to make his millions legitimately so he can look his wife (Jessica Chastain) and kids in the eye each night knowing that he is an honest, hard-working embodiment of the American dream.
Forces around him make that supremely difficult and almost impossible. As you can see in the A Most Violent Year trailer, someone is hijacking his oil trucks and he is losing money faster than a tanker oil spill drains black gold into the sea. As a city drowns in violence (all of which we hear about and hardly see), even his wife seems to think that Abel is being too passive for the times.
What’s a man to do?
You can see the trouble in Isaac’s face the most as he portrays Abel and it is brilliant. We adored him for years, but with the attention he got for Inside Llewyn Davis, we could not be more thrilled to share him with the world. And now that he is cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he is about to become a household name. But with A Most Violent Year, the talented actor is able to go deep and live on the emotional fault lines of a man being pulled apart in many different directions.
In the hands of Isaac, Abel is someone who we pull for -- even if we tend to side with the idea of turning to violence. He knows though, an eye for an eye will eventually leave us all blind.
Chastain is also quite terrific, but is not given too much to work with. She kind of plays a variation on the Michelle Pfeiffer character you can see when you watch Scarface online. She is icy. She is driven. And again with that alluding to violence and violent people that Chandor continually teases but hardly ever shows, Chastain’s moll wife continually mentions being willing to call her father or brothers for “help.” Clearly, they’re gangsters and Abel wants nothing to do with it. But, will he be pushed so far that he has to accept their aid for the sake of continuing to provide for his family in a business landscape that is more Wild West than mild mannered Manhattan.
At the end, looking back, it seems trite to fault a film for its title. But, given the selling point of this film of it taking place in A Most Violent Year and how all of its characters circle the drain of violence, we were a little disappointed that the movie didn’t hit us over the head with the shovel we expected.
But, our A Most Violent Year review can report, that is clearly what Chandor had in mind the entire time.