J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year takes place in New York City in 1981, during the era of crack cocaine wars, soaring homicide and robbery rates, Times Square at the height of its pre-Giuliani sleaze, and lingering memories of the Son of Sam serial killings. In the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, an ambitious immigrant named Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) is trying to get his home heating-oil business off the ground, despite stiff competition. "Stiff" as in hijacked oil trucks, an armed intruder at the suburban home Abel shares with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and their children, and an omnipresent sense of impending malice.
Writer-director Chandor, who made the financial meltdown drama Margin Call as well as the Robert-Redford-alone-on-a-sinking-yacht adventure All Is Lost, has a definite predilection for anxious situations. From the opening scenes, in which tank truck driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) gets forcibly evicted from his rig at a tollbooth, a hushed air of mayhem weighs heavily on everything about the story, including chief executive Abel's nervous negotiations with a family of orthodox Jews for a waterfront oil depot, and his cool-as-a-cucumber badinage with rivals in the heating-oil biz (a notoriously "mobbed-up" line of work). Even the interiors are forbidding.
The movie has the unmistakable flavor of New York's bad old days. For aficionados, Abel's massive town car and camel-hair topcoat instantly evoke such on-location 1970s crime pics as The Seven-Ups and Cotton Comes to Harlem. As we go deeper into it, we're reminded of the films of the late Sidney Lumet, the Big Apple's master spinner of cops 'n' robbers tales (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). Abel Morales is a prince of the city. All through the movie, he announces to everyone that he wants his enterprise to succeed by playing fair and working hard, and that he won't cave in to the unseen hand that keeps thwarting his efforts.
Such is the pervasiveness of the tense atmosphere and Isaac's smooth, quietly sinister performance that we never quite believe him. We keep waiting for Abel to drop his nice-guy attitude and play dirty, to assassinate someone or take midnight retribution in a freight yard somewhere. And yet he keeps a lid on himself despite a string of provocations. The scene in which Abel teaches some new hires how to close a contract is as ruthless as anything out of David Mamet. Hats off to Isaac, whose portrayal of a nudnik Greenwich Village folk singer in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis gave no hint that he could project such steely determination, a few miles and years away in New York's outer boroughs.
If Abel is the epitome of the poker-faced power player, his wife Anna functions as his darker half. She comes from a family of tough guys and packs a handgun in her purse. Every time Abel comes home and agonizes about the latest assault on their business, she counsels striking back. Chastain's hard-eyed Anna prowls the near background like Lady Macbeth with cleavage, muttering imprecations and staring holes in her husband. Chastain gives one of the finest supporting actress perfs of 2014, if not the very best. Chandor stocks the canals and loading docks with a tank full of perfectly cast characters: Albert Brooks in the pithy role of Abel's lawyer; David Oyelowo (from Selma) as the DA, who warns Abel of possible criminal charges; the aforementioned Gabel as the scared-rabbit driver; Peter Gerety as a stereotypical slippery union rep; and Alessandro Nivola and Glenn Fleshler as a few of Abel's competitors, who tend to congregate in restaurants and barbershops left over from Goodfellas.
A Most Violent Year is a carefully prepared, deep-dish slice of big-city malevolence. Contrary to its title, most of the violence is implied, not acted out, and yet the smallest crumb of dialogue or the glint in a character's eyes can produce shivers. Just because the story is conveyed in carefully manicured vocal tones and shades of beige doesn't mean it can't make us squirm in our seats. We'd love to see filmmaker Chandor keep working this vein but evidently he's got other types of films in mind. His next project is reportedly a dramatization of the horrendous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.