Set in New York City during the winter of 1981, A Most Violent Year follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) as they try to keep their heating oil business afloat during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.
The premise sounds dull but what the film leaches onto is how Abel’s business is attracting the displeasure of his competitors. Instead of mean phone calls about how fast his business is growing, competitors are sending goons with guns to his house and beating up his truck drivers. They’re turning the oil heating business into one of the most dangerous jobs in town.
Along with angry competitors, Abel’s business is under investigation by a New York City defense attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo) and his office.
Anna, who comes from a mob family, doesn’t take threats on her family and their business lightly. She’s constantly reminding Abel, with her cutthroat responses, how she can handle the issues they’re having with competitors. The difference in how Anna and Abel see solutions is evident during a scene when they accidentally hit a deer and have to put it down. Abel’s attempt to stay on the straight-and-narrow and not be seduced by organized crime is starting to put him at odds with his wife and his employees.
Good News: Oscar Isaac’s rocket to Hollywood’s #1 leading man spot is just taking off. Bad News: After Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens it may be too late. Isaac’s opportunities on the big screen have been limited, but he demands your attention whenever he’s onscreen and A Most Violent Year is no different. As Abel you see Isaac maneuvering his way through New York trying to hold onto to his morals, avoiding corruption like potholes on a bad street. You can see Isaac carrying the weight of a man trying to fight off those temptations, protect his family, grow his business, and mend the relationship with his wife in every scene.
Isaac is perfectly paired alongside Jessica Chastain as his wife Anna. Chastain brings the ferociousness of a lioness protecting her cubs to her role and it’s perfect. Anna’s moral compass isn’t in the same place as Abel’s and Chastain nails that home with every side-eye, sarcastic smirk, and ruthless comment that shoots out her mouth. There are few actresses who can be believable as the beautiful wife of a business man, and the daughter of a mob family with the cold-blooded drive to get what she wants in life.
What makes the film work isn’t just the two leads passionate performances but the complexity of their characters. They’re two people who want the same thing but have different ideas on how to get their. Like Abel says in a scene with Lawrence, “The result is never in question for me, just what path do you take to get there.”
Writer/Director J. C Chandor (All is Lost, Margin Call) has woven together another fascinating story. Much like his other films, Chandor relies heavy on character studies to tell his story. A Most Violent Year isn’t ‘Sopranos 1981’ or anything close to it, it’s a story that dabbles on the outer-margins of organized crime. The film talks about a boogey-man you never really see. Much like Margin Call, Chandor relies on audiences being smart enough to connect the dots and follow the bread crumbs. If Chandor continues to get great performances out of his cast, he’ll keep getting opportunities to tell the stories he wants.
A Most Violent Year is a fascinating look at one man trying his best to keep away from organized crime. Even without all the gun-play we’ve grown to love in our mob films, it manages to tell a thrilling story about business and crime in New York during the early 80’s.