Hypnotic, exacting and subtly savage.
Set in the semi-lawless New York City of 1981, A Most Violent Year is about an immigrant entrepreneur trying to expand his heating-oil business while fending off near-daily hijackings of his delivery trucks. It's kind of a thriller -- there are two chase scenes, at least -- but any genre expectations will be thwarted by writer/director J.C. Chandor's almost perverse pleasure in stopping shy of the boiling point. A Most Violent Year is all about the simmer.
The magnetic Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) plays the self-made Abel Morales, who has risen from a humble delivery driver to marry the boss' daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain, Brooklyn-tough terrific), and buy out his business, Standard Heating Oil. At the film's beginning, Oscar and Anna -- she's his tricksy CFO -- place a down payment on pier-front property that will most certainly take the company from family business to major player. They've got 30 days to secure a bank loan and close the deal. Wanna bet it turns out to be the shittiest month the Morales couple has ever known?
Chandor knows how to make cinematically suspenseful unlikely scenarios -- the blackout-inducing number-crunching behind the banking crisis in Margin Call, the ultra-slow systems failure of a sinking ship in All Is Lost. In A Most Violent Year, his most thematically ambitious picture yet, Chandor turns a contained and character-specific story into the threadwork of a massive canvas about the art of the sale, marital power struggles, the limits of the American Dream, and the lies we tell ourselves to reconcile reality with a preferred narrative (for instance, Abel's defining sense of integrity -- while sincere -- is only possible because others have done the dirty work for him).
A Most Violent Year was overlooked in all the year-end accolades, probably because it's so defiantly unshowy. (That said, cinematographer Bradford Young does something with winter sunlight that could make you moan.) It's no stretch to imagine what the Scorsese take on this movie would look like -- more emphatic, more acrobatic with the camera -- or the David O. Russell version, which would surely mine for bleak laughs at the irony of an honorable man utterly blind to his cheerfully corrupt deputies. A Most Violent Year is its own thing, hypnotic and exacting and as subtly savage as mellow-voiced Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)," which opens the film and sets the tone. I was fully in thrall to it all.