Heating oil may not be the sexiest narrative device for hard-bitten cinema, but J.C. Chandor’s gripping paean to the crime dramas of yesteryear crackles with a slow-burning tension.
While the title suggests otherwise, A Most Violent Year eschews the brutality of Scorsese-aping gangster flicks for a more unconventional and understated drama about an immigrant businessman doing everything in his power to avert bloodshed and avoid being reduced to the level of those who would seek his downfall.
The violent year in question is New York’s annus horribilis of 1981, when 120,000 robberies and more than 2,100 murders were reported. Amidst such chaos, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep the plates spinning as he runs his up-and-coming heating oil firm, while his impetuous wife Anna (a formidable Jessica Chastain) looks after the books.
The hijacking of the company’s trucks by unknown assailants and an investigation into alleged price-fixing and other dirty tricks by ambitious Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) adds to the pressure on Abel, who enters into a potentially dangerous business deal with a group of Jewish Chassidim that could lead to his becoming a major player in the city.
When trouble visits their door, Abel’s reasonable business-minded approach is called into question by Anna, whose family connections seem to suggest violence is no stranger (“You’re not going to like what’ll happen once I get involved”).
This reveals itself in a key scene when a deer runs out in front of their car and, before Abel can bring himself to put it out of its misery with a tyre iron, Anna puts three rounds into the poor beast having decided that “she’s going to do something about it”.
In spite of their different outlooks on what needs to be done to survive and thrive, they nevertheless make for a formidable team, with Anna the power behind the throne as she propels her husband to greater heights.
As well as looking like a Godfather-era Al Pacino, Isaac’s softly spoken tones also bring to mind Michael Corleone, while his sharp suits and perfectly tailored camel-hair coat exude an authority in keeping with his measured demeanour.
In spite of his aversion to violence, Abel is not one to be pushed around, though and his ambition is unrelenting, as his attorney Andrew Walsh (a barely recognisable Albert Brooks) discovers when he asks him “why do you want all this so much?”, only to receive a blank stare and the response “I have no idea what you mean”.
The singular image of oil oozing like blood from an oil tank pierced by a bullet speaks to the fascinating battle Abel faces in A Most Violent Year. When violence erupts, it is sudden and striking, notably during a freeway set piece involving truck driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) that spirals out of control.
Comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s 70s/early 80s work, most notably Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Prince And The City (1981), and the output of Lumet’s torch-bearer James Gray (2000’s The Yards being the best example) are plain to see, but Chandor is no magpie and by making the strongest and most intimidating character in the film a woman subverts the normal expectations of the crime drama.
Scenes are juxtaposed between dimly lit rooms (a nod to The Godfather) and a yellow-tinged New York winter courtesy of Bradford Young’s crisp and moody cinematography, while the lack of a consistent score (an extended car, foot and subway chase is made more dramatic by the dearth of music) is refreshing.
An assured step forward in Chandor’s so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America’s cinematic crime genre. As Abel would say: “The result is never in question; just what path you take to get there.”