A desperate man has no lengths that he won’t go to protect what is his. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a large stake of the heating oil trade in New York City, but he is leveraged to the hilt. A prime piece of real estate purchased from Hasidic Jews could be the move that puts him in the driver’s seat among his competition. Abel immigrated to New York and in no time at all he has ascended to prosperity — and made enemies.
An uptick in rampant violence has halted Abel’s business at a moment when he absolutely needs to capitalize on sales. Competing interests are taking down tankers and it’s all the excuse Abel’s wife needs to bring her family into the fold. Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the iron fist to Abel’s velvet glove, and he knows exactly what acts of violence her mob family is capable of. The District Attorney’s office has designs on an indictment with Abel’s name on it, a turf war would put everything he built at risk.
1981 hosted the highest number of rapes and murders in the history of New York City, so prosecutors (David Oyelowo) don’t particularly care about the thefts of a few oil tankers. Despite the advice of his attorney (Albert Brooks) to let drivers carry a gun, Abel refuses to let matters escape beyond his control. The result of his work is never in question, but the path he takes to get there is constantly under scrutiny. Yes, his employee Julian (Elyes Gabel) needed to be hospitalized following a carjacking, but giving him a gun would only escalate the situation and what keeps Abel standing is his moral fortitude. Alex Ebert’s unique score provides many moments of contemplation, but Chandor knows when to utilize silence during those times when Abel’s inner turmoil overtakes him.
With all sides playing Abel to the middle, this immigrant with a dream is now struggling to keep his empire from slipping through his fingers like sand. Unlike, say, The Godfather which encapsulates the rise and fall of an entire crime family, A Most Violent Year seizes on a small narrative arc, yet it is no less satisfying. The film primarily serves as test of endurance as Abel watches double-crosses and corruption threaten to tear down everything he has built. The American Dream has always been sold as a process that rewards those who work hard, yet moral grey areas make up far more of the path to riches. How much longer Abel can remain principled with close confidants corrupting him is anyone’s guess. Especially when the foremost enabler in Abel’s potential downfall is none other than his own wife.
As Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain snaps back between docile housewife and enforcer in a flash. Anna is playing a housewife, but by no means is she a secondary character, she possesses agency and will protect her own by any means necessary. The scenes between Abel and Anna require equals who hold their own in fierce debate, and while Oscar Isaac could have overshadowed his performing partner, Chastain commands every second she is onscreen.
Three films in and director J.C. Chandor has completely earned his reputation as an actor’s director. Chandor returns to his talkier, New York roots, moving away from the dialogue-less All Is Lost, and taking a look at New York circa 1981. Pulling double-duty as writer and director, Chandor crafts a first-rate dissection of the American Dream, complete with the treacherous pratfalls that await even the most virtuous of us behind the convincing sales pitch. As strong as Oscar Isaac’s performance as Llewyn Davis was for the Coen Brothers, this feels like his ‘Godfather’ moment. Isaac is on the cusp of breaking out and this role can be the shove that Michael Corleone was for Al Pacino, though with Star Wars and X-Men looming, I’m sure he’ll become well-known regardless.
Few films this year have managed to be as strong as the performances holding them up, but A Most Violent Year is a strong contender for being the must-see title of 2014.