J.C. Chandor’s return to land-based storytelling shares some of the predilections of last year’s Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost. Both that film and A Most Violent Year are deliberately paced, refusing to rush their stories for the purposes of juicing the drama. This is not a bad tendency. It shows Chandor to be an unusually disciplined filmmaker in a landscape increasingly populated by the work of the eager-to-please. But not all subject matter supports the slow-and-steady approach, and that’s the case with A Most Violent Year.
It’s the winter of 1981 in New York, one year after the city’s most violent on record. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a heating-oil delivery business, one of many in an industry where disputes over territory and practice tend not to involve official authorities. Quietly driven, Abel has just put a down payment on a parcel of land that will help grow his business if he can come up with the rest of the money in 30 days.
Just as the clock starts ticking on that deal, one of his trucks is hijacked by men who leave his driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), in the hospital and take off with $6,000 USD worth of product. At the same time, word comes down that Lawrence (David Oyelowo), the district attorney, is preparing a series of charges against him. When Abel asks his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) if they have anything to worry about, she says levelly, “We follow standard industry practice.”
This doesn’t reassure Abel, who looks like the kind of straight-arrow striver who would show up to high school wearing a tie and would be taking night classes after his night classes if they were offered. Anna is of a rougher and more careless cut. Vague references to her maybe-mobbed-up father and a casual attitude toward violence mark her as a risk in Abel’s orderly world. “Fuck the DA, we’re at war here,” Anna shouts at Abel in full far-borough rant. “Well, I’m not,” Abel replies, as cool as could be. He resists suggestions from his lawyer, Walsh (Albert Brooks), as well as the union rep (Peter Gerety) that he arm his drivers so they can protect themselves.
Abel’s caution isn’t just born of morality. His immigrant background leaves him less sure of his footing and more aware of how far he can fall. “English,” he quietly admonishes when Julian slips briefly into Spanish. Abel trains his workers as though they’re selling the word of God. His delivery is so disciplined and exacting that it’s easy to think that he actually believes that they treat his customers better than “these other guys”, his shadowy rivals who might be the ones hijacking his trucks and beating up his salesmen. He has moved his wife and children into a cold, modern new home outside of the city, and thinks that that means something — but the violence still follows them.
Isaac’s slow undertow of a performance provides a solid base for Chandor’s drama. At first it seems like Isaac, usually more energetic and charming on screen, is doing some kind of New York actor parody, modeled on early work by Al Pacino or John Turturro. Eventually, however, Abel develops his own persona, particularly shaped to come up against Anna’s flashing temper, as Chastain’s blazing blue eyes turn suddenly and deeply threatening.
The reserve in Isaac’s performance helps us to see Abe’s efforts to negotiate among the many competing interests jeopardizing his livelihood and the clawingly combative relationships in his life. But it doesn’t do wonders for the film itself, which suffers for its underwritten script. This is most apparent in A Most Violent Year‘s conclusion, which recalls those in Chandor’s previous films. Both All is Lost and Margin Call are masterfully detailed, their fascinating emotional landscapes rendered alternately against the high seas and a high-pressure Wall Street firm. But his films also maintain a certain detachment, and even as A Most Violent Year evokes chaos, desperation, and the sense that everything can collapse at any moment, it doesn’t create characters whose predicaments viewers will care about.