Compared to your average gangster period piece, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year avoids thuggish stereotypes and Italian-American backgrounds by focusing on the corrupt nature of seedy corporations fighting silent territory wars. The beauty of Chandor’s screenplay is that it pits man against circumstance in a battle that doesn’t necessarily define Oscar Isaac’s business mogul as a hero or anti-hero, but a man fighting to protect everything he’s built through back-breaking work and determination.
Chandor makes it easy to suspend judgement in the face of moral dilemmas, juxtaposing crime against self-preservation, as Isaac’s choices come from a place where fears of safety and survival swim with freedom – unless the actor is just holding a poker face for two hours. Either way, A Most Violent Year turns NYC’s most dangerous stretch of time into an intriguing story of reactionary strife and the monsters we can possibly evolve into (depending on your interpretation).
Isaac plays Abel Morales, a humble businessman looking to secure the American dream through legal means, but New York City wasn’t built on honesty and fair play. As Abel looks to expand his company, the safety of his employees comes into question when truck drivers find themselves under attack by gunmen looking to steal their precious cargo. Refusing to watch his empire crumble, Abel is forced into situations that aren’t considered legal by any means, but with his back against the wall, no other choice seems available. With his family living in fear (wife Anna is played by Jessica Chastain) and corruption on the rise, Abel must intimidate his competition while making sure his demons don’t follow him home – all while avoiding a jail sentence.
The collective power of Isaac and Chastain makes A Most Violent Year a movie that shouldn’t be missed, as it cements these two shooting stars among Hollywood’s elite. Isaac isn’t a physically imposing man, yet his class and presentation make him seem ten feet tall in the face of goons, guns, and threats against his own works. Abel Morales is a powder keg waiting to explode, yet he manages a calmed restraint in the wake of illegal activity that would only confirm Lawrence’s (David Oyelowo) investigation.
Chastain plays directly into Isaac’s hand, bubbling over with emotion while embracing a less restrained survival instinct that shows more patience with criminal actions. While Abel lives his life as close to the moral line as possible, it’s Anna who starts carrying a gun for protection and confidence. Abel can’t even bring himself to kill a wounded deer, yet Anna doesn’t think twice about walking over and pumping a few shots into the suffering creature’s head. Chastain flaunts her sexuality and lashes out with her New York-ah accent, embracing a less toned-down acceptance of the time’s dangerous, brooding atmosphere. The two play together in synchronous harmony, one tame and the other wildly unhinged, but their teamwork comes together like an 80s Bonnie and Clyde – without the killing and gunfights.
Chandor’s script portrays Abel Morales as a fair, (mostly) honest man, and his conceptual knowledge of the blurred lines between “good versus evil” makes A Most Violent Year more interesting than it has any right to be. We’ve seen rival companies quarrelling over sales and profits before, but Chandor explores a maddening underworld where truck-jackings are daily occurrences and job titles involve carrying a gun to ward off thieves. Morales’ story strays as far from stereotypical gangster territory as possible, as it blends in weighty hints of family drama, warring business factions, and a brutish evolution, all making for a provocative mix of non-gangster-norms that generates a much more intriguing period watch.
With that said, it becomes evident that even though Chandor goes outside-of-the-box and transports viewers to a heavily stylized period of furry coats and slicked hairstyles, the performances of Isaac and Chastain are not balanced out by an equally emphatic story. A Most Violent Year is a dark, dirty tale of how honest men must face difficult choices, living through consequences that come along with limitless success, but there are moments when Chandor’s script plods along at a rather stiff and rigid pace. It’s the kind of film where anyone can be bought for a price, from the most lawful to the greediest, but that notion alone has been explored over, and over, and OVER again. It’s a good thing Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain didn’t get the memo about such normalcy, as they gladly become J. C. Chandor’s saving grace through radiance, chutzpah, and strong performance craftsmanship, which is the succulent cherry topping this vanilla sundae.
J.C. Chandor's latest period piece strays favorably from the path of typical gangster films, giving both Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain ample room to flex their professional dominance.