Directed By: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Tag line: "The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there"
Trivia: Albert Brooks's role was originally written for Stanley Tucci
New York City, 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the owner of Standard Oil, has just finalized a deal to purchase a large storage facility on the banks of the East River, a move he’s convinced will catapult him to the top of the home heating industry. Accompanied by his attorney, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), Abel puts a down-payment of 40% on the property, and, according to the terms of the contract, has 30 days to pay the remainder (a total of $1.5 million). Should he fail to do so, its current owner, Josef Mendellsohn (Jerry Adler), will keep the deposit and instead sell to one of Standard Oil’s competitors. But Abel isn’t worried; his bank, with whom he has a great relationship, will gladly loan him the money he needs. With all the pieces in place, Abel is as close as he’s ever been to making his dreams come true.
Then, suddenly, things begin to fall apart for both Abel and his company. Within moments of signing the deal, one of Standard’s trucks is hijacked by a couple of gun toting thieves, who beat the driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), so severely that he ends up in to the hospital. Though he believes the crooks were hired by his competitors, Abel refuses to retaliate, a decision that doesn’t sit well with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a gangster from Brooklyn, was the original owner of Standard Oil. What’s more, the city’s Assistant D.A., Lawrence (David Oyelowo), is investigating the Home Oil industry, and has told Abel that several indictments against Standard Oil (for, among other things, corruption and tax evasion) are in the works. In spite of the many issues he’s facing, Abel is convinced he’ll out win in the end. But will he be forced to abandon his principles in the process?
Directed by J. C. Chandor (who also helmed All is Lost), A Most Violent Year isn’t what you’d call an action-packed crime film (its thrills are few and far between), but thanks to the performances of its two leads, it’s a movie that’s guaranteed to hold your attention. As played by Oscar Isaac, Abel Morales is an honorable businessman working in an industry filled with crooks. He knows full well that the oil stolen from his trucks is being bought by one or more of his competitors, yet balks at the suggestion made by the head of the Teamsters Union that he arm his drivers, a move he feels could lead to disaster (as proven in a later scene). Not even a nighttime encounter with a potential thief, who was roaming around in the dark outside his new house, can make Abel turn his back on his beliefs. Through it all, he remains steadfast in his determination to ensure his business practices are on the up-and-up, and that he himself is always doing the right thing.
On the flipside is his wife Anna, excellently portrayed by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who doesn’t agree with her husband’s “hands-off” approach. The daughter of a mobster, Anna is, at times, cold and calculating; “You’re at war here” she says to Abel, and tells him that, if he wants to survive, he’ll need to strike back at his enemies. And if he doesn’t, she assures him that she will. In what is the film’s most revealing scene, the couple, on their way home from dinner one evening, hit a deer that darts into the road. Not wanting to see the animal suffer, Anna tells Abel to put the creature out of its misery. But when it comes to delivering the fatal blow, Abel hesitates, at which point Anna steps in and finishes the job. Yet, despite their very different natures, there isn’t a moment in A Most Violent Year where we doubt the love these two have for one another. They may not see eye-to-eye, but they know they’re in this together, and no matter how bad things get, they’ll always stand by each others' side.
Shot on-location in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, A Most Violent Year takes full advantage of all that New York City has to offer, from its picturesque skyline (as seen from the oil facility Abel is trying to purchase) to the seedier sections of town, and in so doing gives the film a gritty, urban feel that enhances its story of crime and corruption. As strong as the setting is, though, it’s the moral stance taken by its lead character, as well as the fascinating relationship he shares with his headstrong wife, that's the movie's true heart and soul.