There are certain points in history that beg to be the backdrop to a story. In JC Chandor’s (All is Lost, Margin Call) A Most Violent Year it’s 1981 in New York: a setting known historically for its rampant crime rates, financial uncertainty, and a general sense of terror. It’s a story in and of itself. Luckily, Chandor does not commit the mundane crime of many and rely on this backdrop to do the talking. Rather, he delivers a narrative about immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a young, heating oil entrepreneur, intent on purchasing a large piece of land for his business while resisting the dangers of the scene. Refusing to let up business for even a minute, Morales insists that his drivers continue to work, unarmed, despite an increase in carjackings as competition surges within the industry. There’s a certain Godfather-similarity; one where an earnest young man, enters a corrupt world, determined to be good, and sees how far he can be pushed before he snaps. All with a low simmer of violence bubbling around the edges.
The violence is muted, like the yellows Chandor has painted the scene with. The faded pages of a forgotten city. Unlike the Coen Brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis, also starring Isaac, with its distracting heavy-blue tones, the color scheme of A Most Violent Year authenticates the narrative. As does the supporting cast. Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Zero Dark Thirty), brilliantly morphs into a lonely, mob-daughter princess, and not like anything you might see in American Hustle, neither. As this is the second cinematic peer mentioned in the same paragraph, it’s important to note that A Most Violent Year is the kind of film that makes these types of comparisons unavoidable. Its triumphs make so obvious its contemporary’s failures.
And it really holds true to the notion that something that’s told well, can make you care about anything. Heating oil entrepreneurs? It’s not exactly the mob. But Chandor, despite being a relatively young director, commands the screen with such mastery that one feels like he could direct the heck out of paint drying. A Most Violent Year may just be one of the best from this violent year.
A Most Violent Year opens today in Philadelphia theaters.