A Most Violent Year isn’t as good as Margin Call or All Is Lost, the two previous films by J. C. Chandor, but it is still a fine film. What stands out here is the screenplay: there is very little actual violence, no grandstanding, no soul-searching, no deus ex machina, and no lucky coincidence. If Abel Morales can save his NYC heating oil distribution business, it’s by smarts and perseverance, not by some last-minute con. The threats to his firm come from outside: someone is stealing his trucks. There are armed goons observing his mansion at night. The DA (David Oyelowo) waves a warrant in his face during his daughter’s birthday party.
The film evokes the early 1980s effortlessly: Reagan, street crime on the radio. It features a lot of meetings, talks, negotiations. At the same time, crime is never far away: truck drivers get beaten up, trucks get stolen, a newbie on his sales team is hijacked. Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, wants to keep his nose and his books clean at all costs. His wife and business partner’s goal (Jessica Chastain) is the same, but she is ready to do what needs to be done. A Most Violent Year has been compared to The Godfather: Part II – maybe because it is its opposite. It’s hard not to think of Scorsese or Coppola or Tony Soprano, especially if you cast Jerry Adler, but Morales is the principled center of the story while things fall apart around him.
The film’s weakest spot is its plot: if everyone around you turns out to be cheating, you can no longer stay clean. The fact that everyone is dirty is the opposite of a spoiler – it’s a stereotype. And the DA’s work does no longer seem to be a smart move, but a lazy, random stab: take any businessman to court, and you will find the dirt on him eventually. Seen that way, the movie slowly deflates. Juding from his earlier movies, J. C. Chandor’s strength is racking up tension by showing us characters who have created situations that slowly turn uncontrollable, so what will be their fate? Morales might give in to backroom deals, or he may refuse and go bankrupt.
This film is probably too predictable if you compare it to Margin Call, but it is interesting to watch. I’ve had my problems with Oscar Isaac, but he plays his role understated and straightforward. Jessica Chastain reminded me of Lady Macbeth because if her husband can’t take care of business, she will. And I didn’t recognise Albert Brooks or Jerry Adler until after the movie. New York City looks derelict, on the edge; apparently, 1981 was the year with the most murders. There is an early scene in a hospital where the corridor is strewn with litter. The outlook is bleak, not because business is bad, but because the people around you make it so hard for you and your business.