A Most Violent Year doesn’t give viewers much to chew on, which is a shame given the film’s deliberately retro palette, recalling the glory days of New York filmmaking in the 1970s. Thing is, while movies by Scorsese and Coppola hummed with what felt like a novelistic depth and intensity, A Most Violent Year just sort of scoots along the surface of its milieu — heating oil distribution in greater New York City, circa 1981. And the violence of the title isn’t Scorsese violence, or even Coppola violence. Literally, it refers to the high crime rates in New York in the 1980s. Figuratively, it’s a metaphor for the pain caused by the unpleasant ethical dilemmas that are the film’s subject. Expect lots of terse exchanges and meaningful looks, not so much gunplay and fistfights.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an up-and-comer in the industry who’s been saving his pennies to put a down payment on a crucial bit of land on the East River that will finally put him in control of his company’s oil imports, storage, and sales. Unfortunately for Abel, small-time goons in the crime-ridden city have taken to hijacking his oil trucks. When he approaches the district attorney for help, he learns that he’s about to be hauled him into court on multiple felony counts. Abel takes offense on both fronts, insisting that he has worked hard to conduct his own business in a wholly aboveboard fashion, but he’s left teetering over a financial precipice. The rest of the film is about what happens when wholesale moral compromise is suggested as the best way out of a bad situation.
Isaac was great as Llewyn Davis and he’s great here, investing a very different kind of character with a similar kind of dignity and persuasively articulated personal code. Isaac’s Abel looks a little like a mob boss in the mode of Michael Corleone or Tony Montana, but it’s easy to believe him when he insists that he’s not a crook. The movie’s cynicism becomes apparent as it backs Abel into a corner, insisting that he’s only avoided corruption because he’s not yet successful enough to warrant corruption.
The compelling moral dimension is matched in a couple of places by fairly riveting action, but the film lacks any commanding narrative insight into its milieu. It appropriates standard genre stereotypes (Isaac has a brassy wife, he’s up against a deadline set by Jewish money-lenders, and he even has a paranoid gangster friend who warns him that he doesn’t want to owe $600,000 to paranoid gangsters) and takes advantage of their familiarity without expanding on them by delving into their psychology or the mechanics of how they run their business. Writer-director A.C. Chandor’s previous film, All Is Lost, spent 144 minutes with just one dude on a boat. A Most Violent Year runs 125 minutes and covers Abel’s business rivals, the rookies on his sales force, the petty criminals targeting his trucks, the Teamsters, one frightened truck driver, and more, so it’s no wonder it spins a less satisfyingly detailed yarn by comparison.
The thinnest part of the film overall might be the scenes dealing with Abel’s relationship with his family, which amounts to a couple of cute kids and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who keeps the company’s books by day and apparently spends most of the rest of her time lounging around the house in silky nightwear. There’s another trope the film indulges in — Anna has few compunctions about the kind of ethical lapses that husband Abel rues, allowing her to play the fundamentally sexist role of the morally compromised hussy who whispers sweet come-hithers from the dark side into the ears of the principled, upstanding man at the center of the story.
What resonates more than the script is Chandor’s direction, which favors shot compositions that frame a single character against his or her surroundings; he doesn’t use the widescreen format to emphasize group dynamics, but rather to create negative space placing characters in relative isolation. (In moral terms, the film believes that it’s every man for himself.) Also important to the mood are the real New York locations, digitally augmented in spots to match the film’s period setting but mainly captured in camera by cinematographer Bradford Young, who gives most of the film a suffusing, yellow-green cast that suggests the permanent magic hour of principled melancholy. Very lovely work on the whole; the screenplay is just too ho-hum for my taste.