Flying past rumbling train tracks, over gliding freeways and underneath an overcast New York City sky, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ sets the tone for A Most Violent Year‘s opening moments perfectly. Gaye was a man who worked hard all his life, only to be beaten by the overbearing odds of the times he found himself in – much like Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, the film’s tortured protagonist and a man of fierce principles. It’s a tenuous comparison, but one that makes more sense as J.C. Chandor’s grim tale of a defiant businessman making his reluctant segue into the world of gangsterism (yes, that is a real word) slowly takes its toll on Abel.
It’s 1981, the most crime-filled year in New York on record, and Morales stands as a man who has essentially raised himself. Having built his prospering oil company from the ground up, he takes immense pride in his work, and practically lives for the promise of forging a legacy for his family and wife Anna, played by a fiery Jessica Chastain. But this is all challenged by a mysterious plot to steal his oil trucks from the road, which also invites suspicion from the authorities. It’s as if Michael Corleone remained on the straight and narrow; although those comparisons may be a little easy to make, they are openly invited by Chandor’s constant yet calm debunking of the gangster mythos. Morales has an empire, yet gets scared when he sees a gun; his wife tells him to hide business folders when the police search his home, but he doesn’t know why. That’s what makes him such an arresting character to watch – he is constantly at odds with becoming something he doesn’t want to be, but it’s a transformation which feels inevitable. And Oscar Isaac, on a winning streak with Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina – not to mention a little movie called Star Wars later this year – shows he is one of the world’s most gifted fresh actors, able to convey the intense, heavy moods of Chandor’s reluctant crime epic with a single glance of his eyes: oozing the gravitas of a much more experienced actor at every moment.
A somewhat unexpected follow-up to the Robert Redford powerhouse All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor has crafted an engaging thriller that rarely uses any of the tropes of the genre, being more of a slow-boiling character study than a fizzling mystery story – but perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is its beautiful construction of early-’80s New York, a hazy network of breeze block buildings and grey-green skies. This triumphant achievement of tone lends the film’s more unconvincing moments an air of believability – for instance, when Chastain’s Anna changes tact at the drop of a hat. But what has been achieved here, thanks to some fantastic world-building and a perfect anchor in the form of Isaac, is the ultimate anti-gangster movie, which at one point literally quotes Goodfellas in reverse with a throwaway line that we won’t spoil here. Despite the occasional trip-up, A Most Violent Year is exquisite filmmaking from a director who feels like he’s just getting started.