For viewers who are unfamiliar with the historical events that inspired “A Most Violent Year,” the movie’s title — and its focus — may be misleading. There are only a few scenes in the film that actually contain violence, and even then it’s kept to a minimum. Additionally, the film occurs over only one month. What the title refers to is the atmosphere of the film’s setting: New York City, 1981, the year in which the city saw its highest crime rate to date. But writer-director, J.C. Chandor, is not interested in the crime itself but rather how it affects the citizens caught up in the underworld while trying to avoid it.
One such citizen is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious Colombian immigrant that worked his way up from truck driver to CEO of an oil company. At the beginning of the film, he has 30 days to produce $1.5 million in order to buy a new factory that will give him an advantage over his competition. Further complicating matters, this opportunity comes at a complicated moment for Morales. Thugs have begun to hijack his delivery trucks and beat their drivers senseless, while an ambitious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has his suspicions about the business practices of Morales’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and right hand man, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks).
Anna and Walsh want Morales to act more like his ruthless competitors, even if it means breaking the law. This brings up the film’s central question: Can an honest man succeed in a dishonest business? Morales is hopeful yet unsure of the answer. His moral quest to find one is the driving force of the film.
Isaac is most recognized for playing the titular character from 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and his charming, confident performance in “A Most Violent Year” is a refreshing change of pace. The same goes for Brooks, who shows the side of himself he explored in 2011’s “Drive.” The film’s best performance belongs to Chastain, who scored a Golden Globe nomination for the role. She demands respect even when she provides some much-needed comic relief. Her impatient and proactive Anna is a perfect foil to the analytical and protective Morales.
Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot “Selma,” paints New York as a bleak, industrial, snow-covered city. This effect is especially evident during the opening sequence in which exteriors of the city are crosscut with Morales jogging while he listens to “Inner City Blues,” Marvin Gaye’s examination of crime in urban America. It is a perfect use of soundtrack and scenery that sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Although it looks great and is well acted, the film has trouble with pacing. There are moments of great excitement placed throughout, including a gripping car chase, but these tent poles are too few and far between to warrant its two-hour length.
The plot feels underwritten in certain areas. The assistant district attorney’s suspicions aren’t elaborated upon enough to justify the importance they’re given. There is also a tension in Anna and Morales’s marriage that is never really addressed. There is more interesting source material to be explored, but Chandor is much more concerned with answering that central question, drawing from material he’s already examined in his 2011 film “Margin Call.”
Other critics have compared Chandor’s directing in this film to the wide range of directing work done by Steven Soderbergh and Sidney Lumet, but such comments are undeserved. Because these directors are no longer making films, critics and audiences alike are hungry for a new director without a discernable style who is willing to take on any subject. Chandor fits that bill, but he lacks the expertise and gusto that Soderbergh and Lumet had in films like “Traffic” or “Fail-Safe.”
Overall, “A Most Violent Year” works well as a crime drama. It’s a gangster film without any glitz or glamour. The excellent cast and fantastic conclusion are enough to mask some of the film’s flaws but not enough to make it great.