Throughout the entirety of JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, lead character Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) insists that, even in a business surrounded by shady underworld types, he is not a gangster. Similarly, the film itself seems to constantly insist that it is not an actual mobster film, merely one filled with the tropes of the genre. Loan sharks dole out sinister life advice in palatial New York fortresses, the American Dreams of first-generation immigrants turn sour, and the district attorney (David Oyelowo) cosies up to the powerful criminal players in the city. However, this is by no means a proper criticism of the film, which is an incredibly solid period thriller and, if it accepted the label, possibly the finest crime film of 2014.
Set in 1981, the worst year for violent crimes in New York’s history, A Most Violent Year follows Morales and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) and their struggle to secure a foothold in the oil heating business. It’s the coldest winter in a long time, and potential for business is huge, but the shady dealings of Abel’s more established rivals make times tough. They hijack his trucks and beat and threaten his employees, all the while pretending they have nothing to do with the crime spree. They’re a truly villainous bunch, with their de facto leader, Peter (Alessandro Nivola) by turns friendly, ruthless, and terrifying. Abel is trying his level best to stay moral, but that may prove to be an unsustainable option is such a toxic climate.
This ethical sickness is captured by the exceptionally talented DP, Bradford Young (who also worked on this year’s excellent Selma), who tints his shots of the Big Apple with nauseous yellows and creams. A Most Violent Year is beautifully shot at all times, with a police standoff in the snow a particular highlight. In fact, the film is essentially faultless in all technical categories, with the early ‘80s period evoked with staggering success, from the costumes to the sets. Nothing looks out of place, and it provides a solid foundation on which to build the atmosphere of the story.
This story is an exciting one, even if it is tinged with some predictability. The American Dream is a big theme here, with Abel taking every step he legally can to achieve his goals, even if he has to play dirtier than he’d like to. Whilst he rises, the life of one of his drivers, Julian (a breakout turn from Elyes Gabel), collapses as he gets in trouble with the law, endangering him and his family. New York is a city that is open to immigrants, we learn, but not one that goes out of its way to support them. However, there is nothing that really surprises here, with each story beat seen many times before in many different gangster films. When it is executed as finely as it is A Most Violent Year this is not a glaring flaw and a deeper discussion of the plot would spoil the film, but it would have been fun to see a fresher take on the genre.
The two lead performances from Isaac and Chastain are particularly memorable, restrained and subtle and yet commanding the screen. Abel and Anna Morales are a great power couple, using everything at their disposal to control a room without ever resorting to histrionics. Chastain drops into mob wife cliché on occasion, but, as with the rest of the film, her work is strong enough to surpass the problem of unoriginality.
After watching A Most Violent Year, a friend of mine said that it was ‘four star to a fault’, and this was a sentiment I found myself agreeing with. It features excellent work on all fronts, from the performances to the cinematography, and cannot really be faulted in any major respect. I absolutely recommend going to see it, but, had it been more willing to take some risks in its subject matter or story, it could have been one of the year’s very best films. Instead it settles for merely being a very good one.