As intriguing is it is, don’t look to the title of A Most Violent Year for strong insight into the film. It’s rarely violent, at least in a physical sense, and is contained to the period of a month in 1981. Instead, the film focuses on a man attempting to grow his business in an above-board manner in an industry that’s rotting with corruption. The film thrives in the seemingly mundane, slowly generating a sense of dread and suspense.
Abel Morales (Isaac) is close to signing a land deal that will give his company, Standard Heating Oil, an edge in a competitive market: waterfront access. He has a month to secure the deal, and he faces a number of challenges. These include highway robberies from rival firms that endanger his drivers, as well as thugs who assault his salesmen. He finds himself at odds with a union leader who wants to arm drivers. Morales also finds his firm under the scrutiny of the district attorney (Oyelowo), who refuses to believe that Morales’ success with the firm is completely above-board. Finally, there’s the matter of his wife, Anna (Chastain), who believes that her husband needs to toughen up and get a little dirty in order to succeed.
In some ways, Morales’ problems are of his own doing. The film makes clear that he’s already successful, and if he were content with that success, he’d likely be fine. He worked his way up in the company from nothing, though, and he’s clearly developed a thirst for success that hasn’t been quenched. That thirst is responsible for the attention he attracts, and his desire to stay clean in a dirty industry weakens his position to fight back. Is it worth standing for principles if you’ll be crushed, or is it more advantageous to bend and survive another day?
A Most Violent Year follows in the steps of J.C. Chandor’s previous films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, and shows the writer/director strengthening his talent. His films require thought and raise questions, and he draws attention to his scripts with his more than capable direction. As I mentioned at the beginning, the film is rarely violent, but the subdued nature of the film makes the bursts of violence that do occur all the more effective.
It helps that he’s assembled a top-notch cast and crew here, led by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Both actors have tremendous presences, and while it may take a while for them to break through with larger audiences, Chandor knows how to pair them together in scenes – and when to throw them at each other.