I saw J.C. Chandor’s previous film, All is Lost, and thought it was a very effective adventure story, so I was interested to see what he’d do next. A Most Violent Year is quite different. In fact it’s quite an eccentric story, and in some ways it defines itself by what it is not. Which is to say that it has all the hallmarks of being a gangster story, but it studiously avoids actually becoming a gangster story.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Colombian immigrant who has taken over his wife’s father’s heating oil distribution business in the New York City area. The year is 1981. His wife’s father, we gradually learn, was a gangster. The heating oil distribution business is apparently rife with criminal elements, and Morales’ trucks are being hijacked by his competitors, although he doesn’t know which ones. He’s also being investigated by a district attorney for various forms of fraud. All of this is happening while he’s trying to buy a riverside terminal that will allow him to expand his business massively. If he can’t come up with $1.5 million dollars in the next thirty days, he will lose his down payment and basically lose his whole business. Morales is pushed and pulled to opt for a violent solution to his problems, but he does all he can to resist the forces at work.
The film has the look and feel of, amongst other things, the Godfather films, and many people have said that Isaac plays Morales very much in the mode of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. (The other thing you see in many review is comparison of Morales’ wife, played by Jessica Chastain, to Lady Macbeth.) Chandor seems to court this comparison, but then he heads in a completely different direction. This ends up not being much of a gangster movie at all, and the pervasive air of political corruption and criminal activity seems, in the end, almost metaphorical more than anything. Most of the conflict is verbal or institutional rather than any kind of overt violence. There’s a dark, menacing mood, but the tension doesn’t lead where I expected it to.
At times I thought maybe it was a bit self-indulgent or arch in the way it played this game, but I always found it engrossing. It looks great, and the cinematography by Bradford Young is outstanding. He’s not the only connection with Selma either, oddly enough, as David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivolo are in both films. Chandor has created something strange here in the way that he uses genre to generate tension but then works steadfastly against the grain. His main character and his approach to the story have much in common: they are both pushed in a certain direction but do everything they can to fight the tide. The result is an ambivalent take on the American Dream.