It’s winter of 1981, statistically the most violent year in New York City’s history. Based on that time period, the film, A Most Violent Year, centres on the lives of Abel (Isaac) and Anna Morales (Chastain) as they try to expand their business and capitalise on opportunities. Yet, through the rampant violence, decay and corruption of that year, they slowly become involved as it threatens to destroy all they have built.
Rape, stealing and murder are frequent broadcasts over the overly-large car radios. Which, to the excessive-downfall of Abel - who is trying to achieve the American Dream through legitimate means - is forced into situations that are not so legal, as his oil empire is under threat by harrowing competitors. That, plus the ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) is sniffing around with hopes of bringing him to jail.
It’s tense. But writer, director, J. C Chandor’s true genius however, is that he establishes a contrasts between an anti-gangster character in an overly-gangster environment. It explores the expected thuggish behaviours, yet with minimal gunfire, car-chases and explosions. Instead of the loud violence, A Most Violent Year focuses on silent territorial wars and atmospheric dealings, which slowly drag Abel into the law enforcements radar.
Through the dark underworld of maddening violence, Oscar Isaac’s humble-seeming business mogul is not presented as either a hero, or an anti-hero - just a man who is trying to protect what he has. But, whilst Isaac is not physically intimidating – his class and approach to the situations make him much bigger than his enemies. It strongly echoes tones of Michael Corleone in both theme and expressionless monologue; likewise, his distance from crime is tested as his moral compass is slips.
Courtesy of Alex Ebert, the film’s orchestral score even sounds like something suited for the Corleone family. Visually, it does too, as renowned cinematographer, Bradford Young, captures the iconic palette of mono-tones, dim-lit rooms and 80’s city vistas.
Jessica Chastain continues her already strong acting streak, as she plays Abel’s wife. A pragmatic woman, who displays a Macbeth-esque hold over him: controlling and manipulating his ideals into illegally inclined methods of success. It’s like Bonnie and Clyde, but without the violence.
Like Scorsese does, Chandor manages to craft a gritty juxtaposition between crime and survival during an earlier set period. It’s like The Godfather, French Connection and various other mafia ventures - smart over loud - and an instant classic.