A Most Violent Year is satisfying in every way, including unexpected ways.
It's a story about the home heating business, and about the trucks that bring oil to consumers. But it's also a brilliant portrait of a marriage, maybe the best since Revolutionary Road.
What's more, it's an evocative period piece about the New York of 30 years ago. As a great New York story, it's also a great American story about ambition and failure, about the kind of people who make it, the kinds who don't, and all the things that can go wrong.
Written and directed by J. C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year is as much about the struggle for survival as his previous films, All is Lost, about Robert Redford on a sinking boat, and Margin Call, with Kevin Spacey at a sinking bank. Those films were intelligent and promising, but A Most Violent Year is of a whole other order, an inspired work of many moving parts, all working and building and converging.
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It's set in 1981, at a time when people would take a breath each time they entered New York City and wouldn't exhale until they were safely out of it. A Most Violent Year captures that sense of inner disturbance, so that even calm city scenes feel like a thin veneer over insanity and chaos. It's in this world that Abel (Oscar Isaac) hopes to make his fortune.
An impeccably groomed immigrant, Abel enters a deal in the movie's first scene. It's the kind of deal that dramas are made of. In exchange for land that will enable him to trounce his competitors, he puts up everything he owns. In the terms of the contract, he then has one month to raise the rest of the money, or he forfeits ... everything. He anticipates a smooth month. Maybe he hasn't seen enough movies.
What's especially striking about A Most Violent Year is the contrast between the pacing of scenes and the pacing of the story. Scenes feel lived in, detailed and, in the best way, long and rich, so there's a relaxed, pensive atmosphere. At the same time, the story is a steamroller, with hardly a scene going by without something huge happening: union troubles, employee crack-ups, robberies, a federal investigation and more. It's an inspired mix of languor and intensity.
Some of the most compelling scenes involve Abel and his wife, Anna, played by Jessica Chastain in vintage Armani and with Michelle Pfeiffer's hair from Scarface. Chastain is the embodiment of a nouveau riche New York woman of the era, and she brings lots of fire to the role. Anna is the daughter of a mobster, and it's a delight to see Chastain putting down her pastels and pulling from the bold side of her palette.
As business partners, Abel and Anna are a study in opposites. He is even-tempered and methodical, and she's decisive and reactive. He is determined to stay within the law, and she can go either way. At one point, he asks her whether the company's books are aboveboard, and she tells him, blank-faced, "We follow standard industry practice on every front."
Not the most reassuring answer. But each has something the other lacks, and there are moments when you can see them silently recognize the other's strength and back down.
In fact, many acting moments could be cited. I loved Albert Brooks as the crooked lawyer you want on your side: weary from a life spent in the shade, but wise from it, too. And David Owelowo brings complexity and thought to his role as an FBI agent. Of course, when you see so many strong performances in one place, you know there's a real director on the premises, one who takes care that even the small roles are perfectly pitched and cast: Jerry Adler as a Hasidic businessman, Peter Gerety as an old-time union boss.
But Abel is Chandor's magnificent creation, and there are times watching Oscar Isaac here that Abel and home heating take on a certain grandeur. He begins to seem like Abraham Lincoln in the first months of the Civil War, threatened with destruction and surrounded by bad advice, with only his intellect and his remarkable temperament to protect him. A Most Violent Year, for all its other virtues, is a wise movie about leadership.