J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a most curious movie, one with nearly all the elements of a classic crime-family saga and yet somehow lacking the moral complexity and emotional heft of the films to which it pays fastidious aesthetic homage: the New York–set urban thrillers of Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Prince of the City) and Coppola’s Godfather series. A Most Violent Year couldn’t look or sound cooler. Bradford Young’s chiaroscuro cinematography lends a bleak, sooty glamour to the malaise-drenched environs of New York City in 1981. Alex Ebert’s music—especially the mournful horn motif that follows would-be heating-oil magnate Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he drives around the once-mean waterfronts of the outer boroughs—lovingly evokes a lost era of film scoring when heroes came complete with their own pensive, melodic themes.
Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two rising movie stars with charisma and talent to burn, star as Abel, a self-made businessman striving to rise in the corrupt and cutthroat home-heating industry, and his wife Anna, a gangster’s daughter who keeps the books for their questionably legal business. Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, and Alessandro Nivola also make memorable if fleeting appearances in supporting roles. And everyone involved—including writer-director Chandor, no doubt—looks sensational in long, belted camel-hair coats. But for me A Most Violent Year remained an abstract idea of a great period crime drama, rather than a fleshly incarnation of one.
Chandor layers that grimy poetic-realist style onto an unsubtle contemporary parable about the moral compromises implicit in the successful practice of capitalism. It’s a laudably ambitious third project for this young and audacious director, who so far has directed two very good and very different movies: Margin Call, a tick-tock dramatic reconstruction of a Bear Stearns–style financial institution’s overnight meltdown, and All Is Lost, a minimalist shipwreck-survival adventure starring Robert Redford, a lifeboat, and an expanse of open water. I’m an admirer of Chandor’s, but A Most Violent Year strikes me as his weakest work so far. For all its artfully established mood and wealth of period detail, the story is too self-consciously mythic, its ideas and themes too clearly signposted, for it to ever spring to vivid dramatic life.
Abel is a first-generation child of immigrants (we never learn from which Spanish-speaking country) who has built a successful business as a home-heating mogul. He frequently makes known his pride in the fact that, unlike the crooked father-in-law who sold him the company, he runs an ethically clean shop—at least by the standards of the New York heating-oil industry in the cash-strapped, energy-poor early ’80s. As several scenes of shady backroom negotiation demonstrate, the city’s oil supply is controlled by a small cabal of operators whose turf wars have escalated to the point of hijacking each others’ delivery trucks at gunpoint to steal and sell the valuable fuel inside.
One of Abel’s drivers (Elyes Gabel) gets pulled from his truck and severely beaten by a competitor’s hired thugs, spurring the truckers’ union rep (The Wire’s Peter Gerety, excellent as always) to insist that the company’s entire fleet be supplied with guns for self-protection—and if the permits have to be forged on the fly, so be it. This is only one of a series of concessions Abel will be forced to make to the dog-eat-dog realpolitik of the business, even as he struggles to keep up the appearance of respectability long enough to land a bank loan that would allow him to expand the scope of his company. Abel and Anna also have their work cut out for them staying a step ahead of the hawkeyed assistant D.A. (Oyelowo) who’s investigating their business and the heating industry citywide on charges of corruption and fraud.
As one of the film’s best scenes makes clear, even the lawful side of the Morales’ business depends on fraudulent claims and false promises of the sort sometimes called “salesmanship.” Training a group of newly hired door-to-door sales reps, Abel demonstrates the correct procedure for convincing a regular-Joe homeowner to switch allegiances from a competing oil supplier. It’s a complex con game in which an artfully soot-daubed handkerchief, sustained eye contact and the correct beverage request (tea, not coffee, to signify the salesperson’s superior class status) matter as much as wording of the sales pitch itself. In this scene—one of the few in this somber tale that betrays a spark of humor—Isaac conveys at once Abel’s deep commitment to his company’s integrity and his untroubled conviction that deceit and manipulation stand at the foundation of good business practice.
As the rushed and overly pat denouement approaches, other scenes will overdraw this ironic contrast between Abel’s squeaky-clean self-image and his sometimes ruthless actions. But as played by the velvet-voiced Isaac (last seen in a wildly different role as the perpetual-loser musician in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis), Abel Morales never ceases to be a richly enigmatic figure. I’m sure Isaac will get tired of having this performance compared to the work of a young Al Pacino. But it isn’t just Isaac’s hushed, measured voice and sorrowful dark eyes that recall Michael Corleone or Frank Serpico. It’s the way Chandor and his DP choose to light and frame Isaac’s Abel, bathing him in a burnished glow that makes him seem at once saintly and damned.
As the more pragmatic and world-weary Anna, Chastain—all outsized sunglasses, pointy fake nails and jangling jewelry—is equally hard to take your eyes off, though her working-class Brooklyn accent occasionally strains credibility. The Morales’ volatile relationship, not only as spouses but as often-clashing partners in a struggling business, is as central to the story as the truck-hijacking crime plot. But though Isaac and Chastain strike plenty of sparks in their scenes together, their characters’ marriage feels more rooted in movie archetypes than in real life: the brooding, reluctant don-in-training, the fiercely protective moll turned gun-toting mama bear. Anna and Abel have three young daughters who are unusually unobtrusive even for movie children, appearing only when needed as plot-advancing elements or potential bad-guy bait. It’s only a small detail, but this absence of a credibly hectic backdrop of daily life for the Morales family is symptomatic of A Most Violent Year’s strangely hollow, underfurnished quality. We know 1981 is the most crime-filled year in New York City history because the title, and a scrap or two of news reports heard over the car radio, tell us so. But for all its meticulous period detail, Chandor’s film seems to take place less in a specific time and place than in a stylish void: the eternal gangster-movie present.