1981 was the most violent year of New York’s history, and in that year, immigrant Abel (Oscar Isaac) sets out to expand his business and provide for his family, only to find the fight to survive one that he may not have been prepared for.
J.C. Chandor has had a heck of a run. Margin Call, his film about one night during which a bank came to ruin, was Oscar nominated, and last year’s All is Lost starred Robert Redford in a fascinating role as a man set adrift when his yacht sinks. With A Most Violent Year, however, it seems that Chandor may have lost his touch somewhat.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, as the central couple Abel and Anna, are on fantastic form. This is a new type of role for Isaac, and he obviously relishes the chance to play a man whose life is falling apart in front of his eyes. Chastain plays a gangster’s moll, and makes Anna tough as nails, but actually rather likeable. The rest of the cast is made up of David Oyelowo as DA Lawrence, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola and Elyes Gabel.
The story, written by Chandor, is where the film stumbles. The story of a man trying to make an honest living in a city riddled with corruption is an interesting one, as is the concept that his business is a heating oil firm – not the most glamourous – but there is so much going on, with characters appearing and disappearing, double crossing one another one moment, then becoming allies the next, that while the central story is solid enough, it becomes difficult to keep track of the players at the fringes. That said, however, Chandor makes the central characters rounded and relatable, and keeps the slow drip of tension and drama flowing through the film.
As director, Chandor has obviously tried to make this period piece about a violent time, feel as real as possible. The big showdown never happens, the violence often happens on the edges of the story, and this is as much a story about secrets and lies as it is one about turning to violence and crime to solve problems. The pacing is deliberately slow and, although this is where many of the smaller players come in and muddy the waters, this also allows Chandor to keep the audience guessing, and for Abel’s struggle to feel all the more believable.
In all, A Most Violent Year is as much a film about New York in the 80s, and The American Dream, as it is about Abel and Anna’s fight to hold onto what’s theirs in an honest manner. Fewer supporting characters and a less muddled throughline would have made for a stronger film, but Chastain and Isaac shine, as always.