In “The Godfather” (1972), crime comes to look more like business at the end of its story. In case of “A Most Violent Year”, a dark, tense drama about an ambitious New York business man trying not to lose everything he has achieved while desperately trying to maintain his integrity, business comes to look more like crime as its story arrives at the eventual ending. With the authentic period mood evoking the gloomy American crime drama movies made around the 1970-80s, the movie is a fateful pastiche of those films to which it attempts to pay a thoughtful homage, and it is gripping to watch at times even though it is already clear to us from the beginning where its story will inevitably arrive in the end.
The title of the movie refers to its period background – New York in 1981. It was the year which is regarded as one of the most violent years in New York’s history due to the rising number of crime cases during that year, and what happens during the opening sequence of the film does feel like another usual violent criminal incident in the city. An oil truck is suddenly ambushed by a couple of guys when it is delivering considerable amount of oil as scheduled, and its driver is helplessly beaten by these robbers because he does not have anything for defending himself.
The truck in question is one of many oil trucks belonging to Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), whose rising heating oil company happens to be at the crucial moment for a bigger success to come when that hijacking incident happens. After the negotiation with a local Jewish group headed by Josef Mendellsohn (Jerry Adler), Abel purchases a big fuel oil terminal near the East River from them, and this facility will give his company a direct access to oil barges coming through the East river while guaranteeing more profit to be accumulated through its considerable oil storage capacity.
While everything looks fine at first, it is gradually revealed that the situation is not exactly ideal for Abel and his company. It seems those unknown hijackers are only targeting his company’s oil trucks, and it is also possible that somebody is trying to ruin his company through this serial hijacking. Considering that his local competitors do not welcome the emergence of a new serious competitor in their field, at least one of them may be involved with this, and such a dirty tactic like that is probably nothing new to these seasoned businessmen, who look like mob bosses at times when they gather together to be confronted by Abel during one scene unfolded at a local restaurant.
In addition, they and Abel have become the focus of the federal investigation led by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, who recently gave a memorable performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” (2014)), who is quite determined to expose any illegal business conducts including price fixing and tax invasion through his investigation. Abel is willing to cooperate with Lawrence, but, though he often emphasizes that he is a clean, honest businessman, he also has many things to be washed before Lawrence’s investigation on his company, and that is the main job of his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks in an almost unrecognizable appearance) and Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who begins to check their account books thoroughly as the main accountant of his company.
And then there come more headaches for Abel and his close associates. The hijackers continue to attack his oil trucks, and somebody tries to break into his family’s new house during one night. Abel tries to maintain the situation as much as he can, but he finds himself getting cornered far more than ever especially when a big bank supporting his deal with Mendellsohn decides to back out of their financial agreement due to the increasing disturbance around Abel’s company. Now he must find other ways to get 1.5 million dollar for closing the deal before its expiration date, and that looks more difficult as he is running of the time available to him.
The director/writer J.C. Chandor, who previously directed “Margin Call” (2011) and “All Is Lost”, slowly builds the momentum in his story while steadily maintaining a nervous mood around his characters. While the composer Alex Ebert provides a moody score of gloomy ambience which appears whenever something serious is going to happen sooner or later, the cinematographer Braford Young gives us a number of impressive visual moments which may you take back to late Gordon Willis’ work in the Godfather trilogy. The characters in the film are often shown with the stark contrast between light and darkness on the screen, and that further accentuates the dramatic tension in the film as Abel finds himself pulled into a shady area he never wants to be associated with.
Functioning as the compelling center of the story with another excellent performance in his career, Oscar Isaac is also surrounded by talented supporting actors including Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Jessica Chastain. Although their characters are mostly underdeveloped, they vividly shape their characters through good performances, and Chastain, who had another terrific year with this film and other ones including “Interstellar” (2014) and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (2013), is especially wonderful as a feisty woman ready to do anything for her family and her husband’s business. The movie does not go deep enough into Anna’s interesting personal connection with crime, but Chastain imbues a strong presence into her character, and she has a terrific scene with Issac when Abel has just gone through what is probably the most difficult day in his life.
While there are a few gritty moments of action, “A Most Violent Year” is mainly driven by mood and characters, and I enjoyed that aspect as admiring the skills and efforts put into it. It could have been more than a mere homage staying inside the conventions of its genre, but it is still an engaging film worthwhile to watch for several good reasons, and it did its job as well as required, if not better than expected.