We open with a black screen, a faint whisper of heavy breathing and the rhythmic patter of rubber on macadam. Cut to a man in sweats running toward the camera, bathed in the dark blue pall of predawn; he never looks down or side to side, only forward. This is Abel Morales, the protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s latest film, A Most Violent Year, and it’s a fitting introduction. As Abel jogs purposefully through the bombed-out urban terrain of 1981 New York City to the soulful, melancholy sounds of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, one immediately senses the dire state of that time and place. 1981 was indeed New York’s most violent year on record up to that point, tallying 1826 murders (after a slight decline through the mid 80s, that number peaked at 2245 in 1990; in 2014 it was 328). The summer of ‘77 power outages/riots and “Son of Sam” killings were in the not-too-distant past and the crack epidemic was on its way. Industry was gone and the economy stagnant; it was a desperate time. Beyond the formidable performances, gorgeous cinematography and spot on art direction, A Most Violent Year reaches its fullest expression when viewed within the context of New York City’s dense history, as a microcosmic parable about one of it’s darkest chapters.
Despite his perfectly manicured appearance and storybook lifestyle, Abel Morales (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) is a man at the end of his proverbial rope. With a high risk/high reward real estate deal pending, Abel finds his up-trending heating oil business suddenly targeted by a slew of violent truckjackings, seemingly at the hands of an unknown competitor. Soon thereafter he comes under investigation for corruption and fraud by the local D.A. (Selma’s David Oyelowo), and things take a frightening turn on the homefront, too, when Abel’s young daughter finds a loaded gun amongst the front porch shrubbery of his family’s chic new home. Add a finicky union boss, antagonistic colleagues and a missing truck driver to the equation and he’s got a full fledged falling-sky scenario on his hands worthy of the Book of Job. Amidst it all, Isaac’s Abel labors to hold his small empire together while maintaining what he describes as the “most right” path.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to said path, oddly enough, is Abel’s own wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). The daughter of a mid-level Brooklyn mobster, she goads her husband toward more nefarious measures at every turn and questions his very manhood when he opts to pursue more level-headed tactics. Chastain, whom many believe was snubbed by the Academy this year, really sinks her teeth into the meaty role and for such a quiet film she vamps it up quite a bit, but only just enough to avoid disrupting the tone. It’s Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive), however, who anchors the story with his subdued yet roiling performance. He convincingly preserves Abel’s moral compass throughout the bulk of the film, but also manages to convey a crucial turning point with only the nuance of a look and a nod. The entire film builds toward this moment, and it’s implications deal squarely with the efficacy of righteousness. It’s an age old question played out through the agonizing decisions of one man; it’s no mistake that the character’s name is Morales.
J.C. Chandor is an exciting new writer/director clearly intent on not pigeonholing himself stylistically. He earned an Oscar nomination in 2012 for the screenplay of his financial crisis focused debut Margin Call, a real-time, dialogue-heavy and very topical film. The following year he garnered hearty praise for the Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost, a one-man-show with almost no dialogue whatsoever. This latest effort’s adeptness with the period setting and timeless themes cement Chandor as a director to watch. It also provides further evidence that Chastain and Isaac are two of the finest actors working today. Simply put, A Most Violent Year is brooding, taut, precisely made and not to be missed.