And on this day, a month later than its “This Christmas” release date, J.C. Chandor’s third outing is in Houston theaters. While getting frustrated isn’t out of the question, doing so will only get me less time to admire what I’ve just seen: a composed, beautiful and powerful crime drama.
Abel Morales is one lucky man: he has a beautiful family, lives in a huge mansion and owns a fuel supplying empire in New York that is on the rise. At the time when the majority seek out success using forceful measures, Abel prides himself in being at – and still climbing to – the top by making nothing but righteous and lawful choices. Nevertheless, this is 1981, the titular time frame when forces only fixate on destroying a person’s legacy and moral compass.
The moment the speakers exhale Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” you know you’re in for something good. The somber song, a genius choice from composer Alex Ebert, instantly sets up the film’s gritty tone, wintry atmosphere and its mean universe. With the music booming over shots of Abel running and the film’s gold tint becoming more apparent, Chandor subtly portrays the idea of how 1981 is the year when wealth is in the air, how this is the time to make a killing and, as a result, how dangerous it can be when you’re rich and the other person isn’t.
Oscar Isaac is simply magnetic as the born businessman whose eyes are only looking forward and at goals to make his company, according to the slogan, “the standard in heating.” Abel is a man who’s always in control – for most of the film he looks dapper and above, he speaks at a calculated pace and tone, not to mention he’s well aware of when to put on the intimidatingly calm visage when discussing business affairs.
Jessica Chastain’s Anna, on the other hand, is Abel’s opposite. And it’s a perfect one. The mob daughter exerts the ability to be side-by-side with Abel, and if need be, on top of him. She is the only person and/or entity to unravel Abel, breaking him out of the image he has clearly nourished and perfected for so very long. As a result, some of A Most Violent Year’s golden moments arrive when Abel and Anne are in the same space – be it when they’re working together or at each other’s throats. Both Chastain and Isaac deliver outstandingly strong performances here as fire and ice or the mind and the impulse, respectively.
None of this would surface if J.C. Chandor hasn’t tailored the world for these characters. Interestingly, A Most Violent Year is light on… violence, with the occasional shootouts and beatings present, but not frequent. The violence is instead portrayed through the constant radio chatter that delivers news of killings around town when Abel is driving. Perhaps the word “violent” in the title refers to the true nature of Abel’s life, an unbridled one thanks to competition that uses goons to hijack oil trucks, a cop (David Oyelowo) who is forever cautious with Abel’s business, an “Abel-in-practice”/young truck driver Juian (Elyes Gabel) and a deal with a Jewish man (Jerry Adler) that could grow or level Abel’s estate.
Encapsulating everything is the beautiful costumes from Kasia Walicka-Maimone reflecting each character’s core, the elegant cinematography from Bradford Young that harkens back to Harris Savides‘s work in American Gangster and the script from J.C. Chandor which is deliberately slow-paced, but filled with interesting scenarios. For the latter, however, Chandor seems to have underutilized the family element where dramatic opportunities are plenty (remember that finding a loaded gun scene?) and introduced a late-game twist that, while thematically meaningful, is portrayed in a way it feels extraneous.
A darling to the critics, but hardly seen at big award ceremonies, A Most Violent Year deserves better. Though this classily directed and compellingly acted film won’t be everyone's cup of tea, what it’s trying to communicate about success – how tough it is to get there and how it is a race where winning means trampling on others who too want it as bad as you – is definitely worth thinking about.