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.”
Yeah, this was one of favorites from last year. A distinct throwback to Lumet’s 70s and 80s crime work, as you noted, Mark. And yes, Issacs was definitely channeling early Pacino’s subtler intensity. Way before he, and Jack Nicholson, somehow misconstrued batshit crazy, scene-chewing antics onscreen as the epitome of acting in later films…ah, but I digress. 😉
Fine review of what I think will gather crime-film aficionados galore in the years to come.
Glad I finally got round to seeing it. I love Chandor’s work and this is a sign of his further maturity. Yep, I hope this cements its place in years to come; feel confident it will. Thanks as ever for the insightful feedback!
Good review. Worked because it focused more on the emotional angle of this story, rather than just delivering constant thrills.
Cheers Dan. Well said.
I loved this one too, great write-up mate. I thought the title was great as there is so much violence within the story. We just never see any of it
Thanks Jordan! It’s a fascinating world, one that Chandor and the cast do full justice to.
Indeed. A scorsese like world but nothing like a scorsese movie. Its some great stuff, just a lot more subtle than Goodfellas etc
Nice one Mark. I enjoyed this a lot, and it’s a shame it got buried amidst all the Oscar-nominated films during the winter, even though it was obviously being put forward as a contender by the studio. A really interesting comment on the link between oil and violence that has partly shaped US society in the 20th/21st centuries. Thought Isaac and Chastain were really good. I need to see Chandor’s other films.
Cheers Stu. I tell you, this would make a fascinating double bill with There Will Be Blood. What do you think?
I agree, that was on my mind when I typed my comment as it happens! Two very good films but that’d be a heavy, slow 5 hours! You’d have to start it at 9am.
Is oscar Isaac versatile or what?
He’s turning into a major player.
Fantastic review! I’ve been impressed w/ Chandor’s Margin Call so this one definitely intrigues me. Especially w/ Isaac and Chastain in the lead, two of my fave actors working today.
Chandor has been a big fave of mine since Margin Call; a film I’m delighted you like! Check this one out Ruth!
Will do Mark! But right now I’m focusing on the MSPIFF stuff, been finding lots of great indie gems, so I’m excited about that.
Good for you 🙂
Still need to catch up on this, but I’m already a big fan of Chandor and an even bigger fan of Oscar Isaac, who seemingly can do no wrong. Excellent write-up mate!
Thank you Adam! I’m right there with you; love Chandor, cannot wait to see what he gives us next.
Fantastic review, Mark. STILL haven’t gotten to this, despite being a huge fan of both Isaac and Chastain.
Great review Mark. I’m sure I will watch this one again in the future. I found myself getting lost in the atmosphere and the sheer force of the characters. The casting of Chastain and Issacs was a stroke of genius.
Chastain and Isaac have great chemistry together and totally sell their characters. Chandor can do no wrong in my book.
I haven’t seen All Is Lost yet but I keep hearing good things!
What a great movie, and a strong review to encapsulate all that I loved about it. Cheers to that Mark.
Cheers to you too brother! A great film about heating oil. Never thought I’d say that!
I know right? I liked how u picked up on that. It certainly isn’t the “sexiest” topic with which to develop a story but J.C. Chandor makes it work wonders
He’s a real talent this guy. Can’t wait to see what he throws up next.