To convey what went on in 1981 New York City, A Most Violent Year relies less on actual violence and more on crafting a very deliberate mood. We hear news reports of violent crimes, we see decay at every turn, and we feel the corruption blanketing the city as our characters go about their business. Director J.C. Chandor and cinematographer Bradford Young team up for this film, and the result is a very elegant set of visuals that perfectly capture the grim mood of the time period; lovely snow-filled landscapes contrast with dark and gloomy interiors, and the production of the movie lends itself very well to its central themes.
Certain scenes toward the end hammer home those themes a bit too forcefully, but there is still an interesting discussion to be found about corruption and the way it may even be necessary in order to achieve more “upstanding” goals. It’s a movie that delves into capitalism and The American Dream, and it does so by exploring the story of an immigrant from Colombia: Abel Morales, played by the always wonderful Oscar Isaac. His story is one about an upward climb through society, about an accumulation of wealth and power even as others are closing in on him from all sides, and it stands in contrast to the story of one of his truck drivers: Julian, who falls down the opposite path of the one that Abel took. Elyes Gabel is fine as Julian, but the entire story is pretty much anchored by Oscar Isaac, who plays Abel as a smooth businessman with complexities raging beneath a calm surface. It’s a magnetic performance, and it’s yet another Isaac performance that won’t get recognized.
The movie stumbles around when it attempts to handle its underwritten supporting characters, and Jessica Chastain’s Anna Morales is a victim of those writing decisions. The relationship between the daughter of a gangster and a man who’s trying to stay legitimate is certainly intriguing, but Chastain doesn’t get much to do outside of deliver some cool “movie” lines (still, the way she says “That was very disrespectful” is like music to my ears). Because she’s Jessica Chastain, she hits whatever notes she’s given and then some, but the problem is that the notes are a bit flimsy to begin with.
In the end, though, this movie is compelling throughout its 2 hour runtime, and it features a brilliant car chase scene near the end that is thankfully devoid of *Intense Music*. Even though the ending of the story is definitely heavy-handed, it doesn’t prevent this movie from being very good. It doesn’t prevent Abel Morales from being a fascinating character, and when the camera lingers on his face as he’s asking for money or giving sales tips or closing a deal, we see underneath that exterior for a bit. It may seem like “the right path” in this world would be easy to follow, but there’s more to it than that.
Photo credit: Participant Media, A Most Violent Year