Although it is very light on action and violence, A Most Violent Year features powerful performances in a slow-burning drama about a good man trying to make an honest living while everyone around him seems to be happy to cut corners anyway they can.
Written and directed by J. C. Chandor (Margin Call and All Is Lost), the film features an incredible ensemble cast including Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, and Elyes Gabel.
Set in 1981’s New York City, the film follows Abel Morales (Isaac), the owner of the small Standard Oil, a heating oil company that delivers oil to various houses in New York City. Morales, who worked for everything he has, runs the company with his wife Anna (Chastain), who has ties to underworld crime thanks to her father.
Although some of his selling methods might not be completely honest (he instructs his employees are tricks to better make a sell), Abel believes in giving his customers a fair price for a good product, and has plans to expand his business by purchasing an oil terminal on the East River from a group of Jewish owners. After making a down payment on the property, Abel is given 30 days to put the rest of the money together for the deal.
While gathering the bank loan, Abel begins to have difficulty as his trucks are hijacked while they are out making their deliveries. The trouble multiples after his driver’s union rep informs Abel of his intention to arm the drivers, and Abel learns his company is being indicted on criminal charges by under criminal investigation by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (Oyelowo) for price fixing, tax evasion and other crimes.
Abel swears his company is clean, but Anna reveals she has been cooking the books for some time. She also clashes with Abel over how to deal with the hijacking – telling him they should involve her father and arm the drivers. Abel also deals with pressure at home as some of his competitors start targeting his family to try and drive him out of the business.
The film moves along at a slow, but deliberate pace as Abel is forced to deal with his competitors, a driver that causes problems for his business, and the looming deadline for his terminal deal.
Although it is set during one of New York City’s most deadly crime years and involves truck hijackings, A Most Violent Year is very light on action – there is really only one scene of violence involving a shootout during a truck jacking on the highway. Instead, Chandor and company have created a film that is very hypnotic and draws the audience in through the powerful performances of Isaac and Chastain, as well as the brilliant cinematography of Bradford Young.
Isaac owns the film through his subtle performance as Abel, and his reluctance to allow his business to be drug into the criminal underworld. The talented actor makes the most of every scene, and makes it impossible for the audience to be disappointed in the film’s slow pacing.
Chastain brings a different kind of supporting wife to the screen, and it was interesting to see her performance – which is a change from the wife wanting her husband to get out of the criminal world. She argues that playing it straight is a waste of time, and they should go further than just arming the drivers. It was another award-worthy performance from the actress.
On Blu-ray, the film looks incredible with the New York City setting almost becoming a character in the film. Chandor and company make the most of the time period and city to fill each frame with atmosphere. Bonus material on the Blu-ray includes deleted scenes, audio commentary, and “behind the scenes” looks at the making of the movie.
While it might not be the kind of crime film everyone is expecting and does move at a slow pace, A Most Violent Year is fantastic and holds the audience’s attention until the end credits roll.