J.C. Chandor is a master of films that put good (or apparently good) people in impossible situations. Take the slick Margin Call, for example, or, in all likelihood, Chandor's next film, Deepwater Horizon. Both Margin Call and his latest movie, A Most Violent Year, are cautionary tales about the perils of doing business in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and about the power and allure of the American Dream and the fallout when it turns into a nightmare.
A Most Violent Year portrays an almost unrecognisable New York City in 1981—the titular violent year—a full decade before the city's fabled drop in crime rates. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is our American Dreamer and Good Person: an immigrant and self-made businessman who owns his own heating oil company. As the film opens, he is about to close a deal to buy a huge storage facility, which would give him control of the market, guaranteeing financial security and allowing him to fulfil his ambitious expectations. He puts down a huge deposit, which he risks losing if he cannot produce the necessary funds to purchase the facility within 30 days.
I wondered if the film was going to become a Merchant of Venice retelling, with Abel as Antonio, but instead, we start to see the fragility of Abel's position. His competitors and others are attacking his drivers and stealing his oil, and his drivers beg him to be allowed to carry guns with which to defend themselves, but Abel violently disagrees. Inevitably, it isn't long before one such attack gets out of hand and the consequent PR crisis is so nightmarish that it causes an ambitious DA (David Oyelowo) to investigate Abel's books more closely and a sure-thing bank loan to dissipate, leaving Abel high and dry.
He is also pretty high and mighty. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of an infamous Brooklyn gangster and it is implied that some of their wealth may have come from him or, at least, because of his behind-the-scenes influence. Abel, understandably, wants to make his own way and to be the architect of his own success, and he wants to do business in a way that he can be proud of and that will make his daughters proud. As the DA circles closer and the violent threats to his business become more serious, you can only wonder whether Abel's single-minded ambition will also be his downfall. "I've always been a bit more afraid of failure than of anything else," he says—and we believe him.
Isaac is great as the ambiguous protagonist whom you can't help but want to succeed. He isn't perfect, as Isaac's performance reflects, but he tries to do the right thing while also trying to triumph—he reminded me a bit of Tom Hardy's portrayal of the lead character in Locke. Chastain also puts in a strong performance playing against type: gangster's daughter, nouveau riche Anna is a far cry from the sweet, ethereal characters she usually plays. Underneath the bad dye job, the red lipstick and the tough veneer, though, Chastain gives Anna a certain vulnerability that seeps out from time to time — when she isn't busy shooting dead a wounded stag that her husband couldn't work up the courage to kill, that is.
Chandor's film is an interesting mix of killer instincts and instinctive killers. A Most Violent Year is a compelling tale of corruption, competition and complacency. It clocks in at just over two hours, but it will keep you on the edge of your seat as it weaves its way through a dirty, bloody, dangerous New York City.