Considering that the film as a whole is fairly humorless, the funniest aspect of writer-director J.C. Chandor’s period drama A Most Violent Year might be that killer title. To be sure, the film takes place in New York City in 1981, a pre-Giuliani time of astronomic crime and murder rates, but the title tees up expectations of intensity and catharsis that Chandor has no intention of swinging at. Cinematically speaking, Chandor keeps a tight strike zone, and the measured, confident, almost chilly tone that permeates A Most Violent Year might be largely responsible for the cold shoulder it’s received throughout the awards season. But separated from all the false hype, Chandor’s film feels smarter and slyer and more carefully crafted than a lot of the obsequious crap (e.g., The Imitation Game) that actually received award nominations.
Chandor’s film is a slow burner, and for much of the running time, the most palpable “tension” is derived from the fear that Oscar Isaac’s heating oil magnate will somehow smudge his camel hair coat. A Most Violent Year shares some stylistic DNA with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but Chandor’s film inherited very little of that 1990 classic’s energetic temperament. Goodfellas is about a man who “always wanted to be a gangster,” while A Most Violent Year is about a man who wants to walk like a gangster, talk like a gangster and dress like a gangster, without actually being a gangster.
A Most Violent Year is also about the need to confound expectations and subvert appearances, about what Chandor sees as a uniquely American impulse to rule a corrupt world while remaining clean and detached, to simultaneously blend in and stand out. That detachment is present in A Most Violent Year from its opening images, as Isaac’s immigrant-made-good Abel Morales (“able morals,” get it? Chandor’s screenplay, while impressive in its scope and originality, is unfortunately replete with such remnants of film school juvenilia) jogs through his affluent suburban neighborhood, listening to the Marvin Gaye ghetto anthem “Inner City Blues” on his Walkman.
Chandor intercuts between this morning ritual and the theft of one of Abel’s trucks at a toll booth, an incident that leaves the driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) physically beaten and emotionally shaken. The truck robberies, perpetrated for the $6,000 worth of oil that they contain, have become a regular occurrence for Abel’s company. Although the union rep pressures him to arm his defenseless drivers, Abel resists courting legal scrutiny as he nears closure on a costly but potentially fortune-changing business deal. Abel’s attempts to remain clean are further thwarted first by the threat of legal investigation from a morally flexible district attorney (David Oyelowo), and then by a second robbery attempt that turns the firearm-toting Julian into a fugitive from the law.
That robbery sequence, with its frequently shifting motivations and antagonists, is a brilliant subversion of our expectations, and emblematic of the way that Chandor refuses to be seduced by appearances. The scene begins with a familiar dynamic, but that dynamic completely flips when the gunfire starts, and re-shifts again when the cops show up. It’s a masterfully constructed scene, showing off Bradford Young’s lushly subdued cinematography and the spare score by Alex Ebert, and the dissociative effect feels right for a 1980s-set film that eschews indulgent pop nostalgia. Aside from Jessica Chastain’s Pfeiffer-in-Scarface-inspired wardrobe and the odd wood-paneled station wagon, there is little to mark this as an “early 1980s” period film.
Of course, that’s because Chandor is really telling a story about our times, about the sort of Teflon morality that enables the more vicious aspects of modern American consumerism to flourish. It is very self-consciously a film about the American dream, and although brilliantly played by Isaac, Abel is fond of such borderline risible, pregnant-with-significance pronouncements as “I like to own the things I use.” But aside from the overly on-the-nose dialogue, in telling this story of a compromised and cornered man who tries to take “the most right path,” Chandor takes most of the most right ones.