From the very first frame, J.C. Chandor’s third directorial feature, A Most Violent Year, calls to mind the greatest gangster sagas of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and others. Hell, if you’re going to ape anything, it might as well be the best, and in doing so, Chandor has created a picture that may well stand alongside those movies before long. This is a quintessentially American story about trying to succeed while every exterior force wants to tear you down.
To call this a gangster movie is a bit of misnomer. The film follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a man working in the gangster-run business of home heating oil in 1981 New York, trying his damnedest not to become a gangster. Though he’s not averse to skirting a rule or two in pursuit of his goal, he’s kind of real criminal. This grows increasingly tricky as other crews rip off his trucks, the industry comes under government scrutiny for widespread corruption, and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn store-front gangster, pushes him to protect his family and business.
The title may also be misleading. For a movie called A Most Violent Year, the story takes place over the course of 30 days, and there’s relatively little overt violence. In fact, the name references the year the film is set, as 1981 is still the most violent year on record in New York. This is the world in which the movie exists, one where the threat of violence looms, always present. This adds an additional layer of ominous tension to the proceedings, but aside from a few hijackings, there is relatively little actual violence. In this film, when there is a running gunfight, bullets are thrown haphazardly and the participants give each other advice about the best way to escape from the cops.
What Chandor, who also wrote the script, does best is subvert the tropes of the genre. Like I said, this is a gangster movie about a man trying not to be a gangster. Abel is a boss, but not a boss. He strives to buck convention, and so does the film. Anna, who is introduced glamming up and putting on makeup, is a femme fatale, but she’s also a mother and the company accountant who spends more time with thick glasses and the books than with a gun in her hand. Even the aptly named Thug #1 is only interested in the money. Ripping off trucks is nothing more than his day job, same as any other. The script even flips traditional gangster movie gender roles, with the granddaughter of a moneylender taking over her family’s traditionally male-dominated underground trade.
The measured, deliberate pace is not going to be everyone’s favorite, but it’s a perfect delivery system and fit for the mood and story. It serves to push you continually to the edge, like Abel, waiting, expecting things to descend into brutality at any moment. A Most Violent Year isn’t completely without action, however, as it features at least one car chase that captures the spirit of the aesthetic of the era, like it was lifted straight out of The French Connection or a movie of that ilk. But even then, Chandor’s focus is more on tension than action, and for as many action scenes as you’ve seen in your life, watching this one you legitimately have no idea where you’re going.
In careers full of fantastic performances, Isaac and Chastain are as good as they’ve ever been. Both deliver powerful and understated turns. My only actual complaint about A Most Violent Year is that there’s not enough of Anna. She’s so fierce and ferocious in her pursuit of protecting what is hers, from the business she’s built with her husband to her kids, that she’s easily the most gangster thing about this movie. Albert Brooks as Abel’s mobbed-up lawyer is a near-ish second, rivaling what he does in Drive, but he’s still a good distance back.
A Most Violent Year is number two on my 2014 top ten list, so it should be rather obvious how I feel about it. At the core, it’s a story about living the American Dream while discovering what an absurd myth that truly is. Even when you pull yourself out of the muck, you just wind up wading through a different, equally treacherous swamp. There are shades of the great sweeping modern crime sagas, thanks in no small part to the ‘80s New York texture, while at the same time it slyly manipulates the formulaic elements of the genre, which provides a fresh edge. In an earlier age, this would have been a classic, but it is still one that is going to stand for a long time. [Grade: A]