A Most Violent Year Isn’t a Gangster Movie, But You Should See It Anyway

J.C. Chandor tells a story about what it takes to make it in America and what that means for one new American.

If you’ve seen the posters or the trailer for J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, you probably think it’s a gangster movie, a latter-day Goodfellas filmed in shades of grey and moral turpitude. Even the plot screams Cosa Nostra tragedy: An iron-willed immigrant family grapples with corruption across a snow-whipped, heavily CGI-ed version of eighties New York. Oscar Isaac, the star, is a dead ringer for a young Al Pacino, his hair delicately coiffed and his face fixed in an indelicate scowl. He looks like he wants to talk about America, like he has a gun, like he’s going to handle the ensuing car chases with James Caan aplomb. Everything about A Most Violent Year screams seventies crime drama, but the film is really just borrowing that visual and cultural shorthand to tell a different, more modern story.

Unlike the movies it borrows from, A Most Violent Year isn’t about gangsters or crooked cops or career criminals at all. It’s the story of self-made heating-oil tycoon Abel Morales (Isaac), a man of deep convictions and commendable values whose surname tells you all you need to know (both about the nature of the character and the subtlety of the writer-director). The Morales family business, you see, is in the process of a costly expansion, but their competitors have taken to robbing their delivery trucks and leaving their drivers beaten on the side of the road. This worries Morales for reasons that prove to be, well, reasonable. The only real wrinkle is that the only offers Morales makes that people can’t refuse are gas rates. He’s got the Gordian knot, but our protagonist lacks a sword.

The director, J.C. Chandor, is routinely compared to Sidney Lumet, director of 70s crime pictures Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. To that end it’s hardly surprising to see Chandor take on a stylized period piece indebted one of American cinema’s richest periods. That’s both what’s good about the movie and what complicates it.

Part of the problem is that Chandor has a pretty tenuous grasp of the genre. His vision of the past is pageantry: the antiquated clothes and oversized hairstyles feel too self-consciously of the era, as if sourced from a book of 1981’s hottest trends. Nothing feels believably owned or used or lived-in, which makes everything look like set dressing. Even the furniture seems like it was bought brand new that day. (This was a problem in Argo and American Hustle too: every pair of wide-rimmed glasses or done-up perm has to scream ‘Look what year this is!’). Isaac and his co-star, Jessica Chastain, both very capable actors, are pushed into very garish, showy performances — all portentous brooding and domestic blowups. It feels like Acting with a capital A and pars of the proceedings cross the line into silliness.

That said, Chandor is a very competent director of action — recall how he made Robert Redford’s rather ludicrous boat-MacGyvering occasion for nail-biting in

All is Lost

— and he squeezes a fair bit of excitement out of this film’s handful of major set pieces. A mid-film foot chase through an industrial wasteland, in particular, is really superb stuff, ratcheting up the tension and culminating in one of the great on-screen tackles in recent memory. But the real attraction of the film, buried beneath all of the period-epic bluster, is Isaac’s well-meaning oil magnate and the business ethos he occasionally expounds. For my money, the standout scene is the one that finds Morales instructing his new recruits in the art of home heating maintenance. He outlines a thorough self-marketing strategy — down to whether it’s preferable to request from homeowners a cup of coffee or tea. The art of coercing suburban families to buy your oil may not sound like blockbuster material, but it is. These guys aren’t criminals, yet their approaches to business are cold-blooded and desperate. In a crisis, commerce takes no prisoners.

A Most Violent Year

is at its most intriguing, and its most distinctive, when exploring the nuances of the Morales small business — the machinations of the day-to-day. But, of course, it’s hard to really be a crime picture without more sensational crime, and Chandor doesn’t dwell on home installation or payment plans long before he’s winding into car chases and highway shoot-outs, which have a lot more conventional thriller appeal. Strange as it might sound, the heating business material is more compelling, presumably for the same reason that David Mamet productions seem more adult and than war pictures.

Chandor isn’t great at singing to the rafters, but he can tell a compelling story about business. That may be better – more exciting. That’s a filmmaker we need right now. The seventies are long gone and morality tales have taken a different turn. Gas may be cheap again, but dreams still come at a cost. 

Photos by Everett Collection