The “violence” in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is one of inner turmoil. Guns are drawn and lives are lost, but Chandor’s ambitions primarily emphasize the inner obstacles that must be cleared in the name of progress. Unlike recent films that embrace debauchery and vice as a means of achieving the American Dream, Chandor’s film is noticeably resistant of amorality. Here we find characters attempting to work within the confines of bureaucracy, only to find the system impenetrable and corrupt. In a film set in 1981 New York City, where constant reminders are made toward the rising murders in the city, one finds the city’s inner decay runs parallel with that of its characters - it’s the metropolis and its bureaucracies that make monsters out of all of us.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a mid-tier heating oil business in New York City. He’s successful, though his competition is fierce. At the start of the film, he puts a down payment on an oil plant that will position him as the leading provider of heating oil - he’s relying on a bank loan to cover the rest of the cost in the coming weeks. Yet as Morales makes the move for capitalist expansion, he finds himself overwhelmed by the ensuing violence that consumes the city. From his competitor’s targeting his fleet of oil trucks, his ongoing legal troubles with a District Attorney (David Oyelowo), to his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) questionable business practices, Chandor makes gestures to unite criminality and capitalist expansion as mutual yet oppositional forces.
Much of the film’s success hinges on Oscar Isaac’s performance, in which the audience relishes in seeing this man’s sturdy resolve questioned in the face of corruption. He’s first seen exercising, running through the city arteries during a winter chill. It’s the sort of allusion during the opening sequence that indicates that Morales will indeed be on the run. And that’s precisely what occurs. With a name like Abel Morales (Abel being the Old Testament’s first innocent murder victim and the surname Morales referring to something man-made or, self-made), Chandor bluntly emphasizes his business integrity and strict moral code. The proceeding narrative serves to unravel everything that Morales has worked for, pushing the proverbial Job to an extreme that will test his capacities for maintaining his rigid code of ethics.
Chandor’s an effective formalist with enough visual nuances to make A Most Violent Year his own. Given the eclectic triad of films he’s worked on so far, the office corridors of Margin Call, the marine-scape of All is Lost and now the expanses of a city on the brink of moral decay, it’s hard to pinpoint a singular frame as unmistakably Chandor. Still, he has a cinephile’s vocabulary, cribbing from gritty 1970s sources like William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. A chase sequence involving Abel and one of his hijacked trucks is a master class of tension, where Chandor’s talent as a stylist and his ability with actors reaches an apex. And even afterward, as we move from a vehicular chase to on-foot, there’s a unique visual flourish involving Chandor’s camera retracting back as Isaac barrels forward that escalates suspense in a new and thematically significant way.
A Most Violent Year is smart and concise, priding itself on its brute force economy to pull you in. With Chandor’s previous films, I’ve felt something of a barrier to ever truly embrace his films. Yet there’s a scene toward the end of the first act where Morales addresses a young group of salesmen in training. It’s Morales’ sales pitch and it may as well be the films as well. Chandor holds the frame on Isaac as he stares at the triptych of salespeople for an uncomfortable amount of time. Chandor cuts to one of the three as he begins to chuckle, only for Isaac’s Morales to admonish him - this is business and it must be taken seriously. By the end of the conversation, Isaac retreats to his smile and leaves the frame, with the young group exhaling in relief. They’re sold. So am I.