A Most Excellent Film

A Most Violent Year
(USA, 125 min.)
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno
It’s New York, 1981, and crime in the city is at an all-time high. Violence, murders, shootings, and such are on the rise, but so too is the invisible crime that has become the norm in America as private enterprise evolves as its own kind of organized crime. It’s a disease, American capitalism, that erupts like Ebola in the year that Ronald Reagan assumes office, and it corrupts whatever agents approach it with good intentions. Perhaps the one good man remaining fighting the good fight for the little guys arrives at a moral crossroads in A Most Violent Year, and trying to win the market with a good heart seems about as daunting as trying to cure Ebola with a Band-Aid. A Most Violent Year is a searing crime drama in the vein of GoodFellas and The Godfather, but whereas Bonasera pledges his belief in the American Dream to Don Corleone with an oath that is tangibly metaphorical, A Most Violent Year will have audiences shaken because the corruption feels unsettlingly real. This third feature by maverick writer/director J.C. Chandor (All is Lost) is a most excellent film.

It’s funny to review J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year so shortly after writing a note of disappointment for Susanne Bier’s Serena. Now here is the scope and sense of empire sorely lacking from Serena’s tale of an ill-fated lumber baron and his wily wife. A Most Violent Year takes the most American commodity of all—oil—okay, the two most American commodities of all—oil and violence—and it builds a world for which criminality and corruption are the foundational elements of an industry. A Most Violent Year takes place in 1981, although it could really be set in any year. A Most Violent Year is palpably resonant as it crafts an engrossing story of one immigrant’s unwavering belief in the American Dream and his rude awakening as he confronts the foundation of said dream and the rules that rig the odds outside of the American Everyman’s favour.

Said aspiring American is Abel Morales (played by Inside Llewyn Davis’s Oscar Isaac), a Hispanic, although A Most Violent Year doesn’t note his exact origin and instead allows him to play a kind of everyman outsider. Abel is building an empire out of the home heating oil company he runs with his wife and partner, Anna (Jessica Chastain, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby). They’re in the midst of negotiating some major land deals that will take their business to the next level when A Most Violent Year begins and they’re doing business the old-fashioned way with dealings in sketchy rooms and briefcases full of money. Abel, much like Serena’s George Pemberton, is more than happy to tip the scales, rig the books, grease some palms, and do things on the hush-hush simply to stay competitive and allow his superior product to get the edge it needs. Anna, on the other hand, is a regular Serena. She knows the business inside and out and she knows that Abel’s morals cannot take them as far as they need to need to go, although the give them an edge on the competition in the long run. They follow “industry standards,” Anna fervently insists whenever Abel wonders if they’re pushing their luck too far, but Anna, the daughter of a crook, knows how far is too far.

The competition, on the other hand, is becoming fierce. As the Morales encroach on the competition’s territory to expand, their competitors, whom Chandor delightfully presents as rival Mafiosi, respond with force. Truck after truck of Abel’s supply is hijacked during the violent winter of 1981 and everyone, including Anna and their resident consigliere Andrew (played by a deliciously slimy Albert Brooks), urges Abel to arm his guards with guns so that they, too, may survive in the kill or be killed mentality of the game. Abel’s unwavering belief that a strong work ethic will carry his business through tough times only amplifies the violence, and A Most Violent Year takes this renegade businessman on a true descent into the underbelly of American ideology.

Oscar Isaac gives an unwavering performance as Abel. He’s strong, fierce, and coolly levelheaded. This man has dignity—perfectly embodied in his fine camel-hair coat that miraculously escapes the film without a blemish—and Isaac plays Abel with such conviction that he leaves the audience wanting to believe in the righteousness of a dream they know full well to be a lie. It’s a commanding performance, a bold new take on a man negotiating the world of the gangster without getting his hands dirty, relatively speaking.

Chastain is equally fierce as Anna. She owns every scene of the film in which she appears. Chastain, the motherfucker who found Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, shows a new layer of badassdom as she, like Isaac, takes the gangster genre to a new level and perfectly adds an edge of the gangster’s moll to the all-American housewife. Take the scene in which she assumes control of the Morales’s empire when the overzealous prosecutor Lawrence (Selma’s David Oyelowo) shows up with a warrant at their daughter’s birthday party. Anna, cool and collected, shows that she’s the true force behind their empire as she orchestrates their charade of suburban normalcy and then intimidates the lawyer like a boss. “This was very disrespectful,” she says, twirling her finger in the, defiantly flicking her cigarette into Lawrence’s cake, and explaining the goodness that sets Abel apart from people of her breed. Chastain’s simmering performance gives A Most Violent Year its greatest intensity and one watches with baited breath waiting for Anna to explode.

Whereas Serena’s megalomania gets the better of her or even Lady Macbeth—literature’s greatest power-driven wife—is undone by madness, Anna never loses herself in her ruthless quest for power. A Most Violent Year calculates Anna’s drive with an intimidating measure of level-headedness and stability: Chastain makes Anna so terrifying because the rationality of her actions and her maternal survivalism always remains clear. Anna knows the rules of the game far better than her husband does, and this makes her a far stealthier player, as we see by the film’s end. She’s uncharacteristically strong for a woman in a gangster film: like Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Hill in GoodFellas, she’s fully in control of both herself and her family.

A Most Violent Year easily marks Chandor’s strongest film yet in his third feat as a writer/director. Chandor, following the talky chamber drama of Margin Call and the near wordless ode of All is Lost, gives this flawless crime drama one of the most potent spins that the genre has seen in years. A Most Violent Year, more than any other film this year, truly feels like it’s about something as Chandor examines the overall pervasiveness of ruthless, unrelenting capitalism perverting anything it touches. The film has echoes of The Godfather as it situates Abel’s plight within the scope of Don Corleone’s America, for Chandor expertly intertwines America’s most prevailing institutions—oil, family, and crime—within the Morales’s rise to power. The excellent cinematography by Bradford Young is dark and brooding, while the taut editing by Ron Patane and the unconventional score by Alex Ebert make A Most Violent Year a heart-poundingly intense and urgent moral fable. Chandor displays a masterful hand at both genre and social commentary by making a slow burn of a film in which no outcome is desirable. There’s no way A Most Violent Year can end well, for even if Abel and Anna succeed in their deal and the expansion of their empire, it means the one good man in the system will himself be corrupted. A Most Violent Year is a dark, brooding, and powerfully resonant picture—and far and away one of the year’s best.

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★

A Most Violent Year opens in theatres Dec. 31 from A24 Films.
It opens in Canada beginning in January from Elevation Pictures.
Update: It opens at The Mayfair on Feb 27 and screens at The ByTowne March 25-27.