Though set in the early 1980s, J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a fine, new-millennium gangster drama. At its center is a home-heating-oil entrepreneur named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who finds himself surrounded by corruption. He's targeted by everyone from the District Attorney (David Oyelowo), to a cadre of competitors, to a mysterious band of armed robbers who keep highjacking his trucks during New York City's most violent year on record. Though this may sound like another tired blood-and-honor riff on The Godfather, writer/director Chandor presents us with a sort of alternate-universe take on Michael Corleone--one whose aversion getting his hands dirty ensures a lifetime of hardship in a world that requires it.
More on that Corleone comparison: With his sunken, soulful eyes; tall, slick, black hair; and an intensity meter that ratchets from "Philosophical Calm" to "Betrayed Outrage" on a dime, Isaac at times resembles a CGI stand-in for early-70s Al Pacino. He's terrific here as a charismatic, sympathetic character whose moral code is as complicated as it is absolute. When pressed by the DA to admit that his business may not be on the level, Morales counters with legalese about complying with industry standards and practices. It's an artfully filtered evasion: Morales can't guarantee that every single aspect of his growing empire is legit, but he's also not the kind of leader who would countenance sabotaging competitors.
We quickly understand that Morales has constructed a sturdy fortress of plausible deniability within his own mind. He trusts his attorney (Albert Brooks) when he says that there's A) no merit to the DA's case and B) the 30-day land contract he's just signed for a 10,000-gallon-capacity shipping port will go through without a hitch. He trusts his wife (Jessica Chastain), the tough-as-nails daughter of a local crime legend, when she says she'll let Morales handle his business without getting her family involved. He trusts that his two biggest rivals will quit causing trouble for everyone, and thus get the law off everyone's backs.
Day after day, this month-long saga (A Most Violent Year begins and ends with the land contract) pushes Morales harder against a wall he helped build through his misplaced faith in the storybook American Dream. Chandor and Isaac build to an emotional climax that a lesser film would have telegraphed in the trailer. Abel Morales is unlike any character I've seen, a principled warrior who stands up to the universe and is undeterred by his subsequent pummeling. I need to revisit the movie, I think, to determine whether or not Morales winds up being insanely lucky, or if he's simply rewarded for surviving a gauntlet of fools, cowards, and back-stabbers.
Sorry if that was a spoiler. If you go into A Most Violent Year expecting, or even hoping for, the ninetieth coming of Goodfellas, nothing I write will disappoint you any more than you are already likely to be during the movie. That's not a knock on Goodfellas, or on you; A Most Violent Year just isn't a showy picture full of gruesome deaths, quotable mobster-isms, or colorful Pesci-types. This is a serious character study that questions what it means to be a "man", a provider, and a leader.
Using our collective knowledge of crime pictures against us, Chandor amps up the dread in very familiar key scenes: the big-boss sit-down, the carjacking, the wilderness-set captive hand-off. The intensity of these moments is just as pulse-quickening as the climactic car chase (and ensuing foot chase). Working in concert with editor Ron Patane, composer Alex Ebert, and cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor casts a vision of a prosperous city on the verge of hemorrhaging its secrets--one in which a well-to-do-looking businessman's quiet drive home can end up as a bloody fight with hired scum.
I have one nit to pick with the film, and it's so tied to the greater theme that I'm usure of how to resolve my complaint. Elyes Gabel does some really great work as Julian, one of Morales' drivers. Unfortunately, Chandor's screenplay transforms him from catalyst to Maguffin by placing him in about three too many scenes. I understand this, from a story-structure and pacing perspective, but his final appearance in the film is far too great a coincidence to let stand without comment. It's a hell of an exit, and Julian's exchange with Morales underscores just how high a price one can pay for righteousness. But I had to walk back the character's last few scenes to figure out how it made sense for him to wind up where he did. The math works out, but it's a stretch.
Quibble aside, I highly recommend A Most Violent Year. It's a different breed of crime drama, one in which avoiding crime is of paramount concern to the main character. Fueled by bold ideas and strong performances, this is two hours of morally complex, stomach-turning tension that live up to its title in ways I didn't expect.