Twitter Plot Summary: A tale of business rivalry and derring do in New York 1981. Heating oil is the name of the game. It might get a bit shady.
Oscar Isaac is our lead Abel Morales, an amazingly coiffured businessman, cunning yet unscrupulous and who has ruthlessly stepped into an area where customers need his product in order to survive the harsh winter. The product? heating oil, of course. Unfortunately for him and his ambitious wife (Jessica Chastain), an unknown rival is hijacking his lorries and stealing his oil. Can he stay in business despite the less than fair methods being utilised by his rivals? And if they don’t put him out of business, the investigation into his company being undertaken by David Oyelowo’s District Attorney might just nail the coffin shut. Just to add salt to the wound, Morales is also trying to finalise a deal to take on a depot near the river, and has 30 days to pay a large sum of cash to the Jewish owners of the property.
The story is set in 1981, a year in which New York experienced higher than normal levels of criminal activity. In this context the struggles of Morales in keeping his company in profit are set against the very real threat of violence from all quarters. He’s a shrewd businessman who is doing his utmost to run his affairs on the straight and narrow – while he is hardly the Most Reputable Businessman of the Year, the thought of becoming a fully fledged gangster doesn’t appeal to him. This is despite him being surrounded by a number of business rivals large and small, all of whom (or even none) could be the one setting him up for a fall.
Isaac is up to his usual tricks of completely embodying a character from head to toe. His Morales is conflicted, unwilling to inflict any more pain on a critically wounded deer, yet more than happy to put his running skills to good use in tracking the hijacker crew or using his command of the English language and his ability to influence people in order to get what he wants.
Isaac isn’t the whole focus though, as he’s supported by a huge number of incredibly talented performers. First and foremost is Jessica Chastain as his wife Anna, crafting a believable relationship that has origin in their real life friendship. Anna is much less conflicted than Abel and this bleeds through into events at regular intervals. Albert Brooks is the Morales’ lawyer, and while just as shady as you might expect (he is a film lawyer after all), he is still someone that has his client’s best interests at heart.
Sneaking up from the rear to almost steal the show is Brit talent Elyes Gabel as Julian, one of Morales’ drivers who finds himself the victim of a hijacking. Whilst not a regular player throughout, his overall arc is of genuine interest, all carried by a great performance.
J.C. Chandor has said that much of his film’s setup and style are a direct homage to the big gangster flicks from that era – a shade of The Godfather here, a dash of Scarface there. In that respect A Most Violent Year is in good company, and doesn’t set itself apart from those genre classics in any respect. It’s a well written crime thriller that doesn’t stick rigidly to the usual crime movie template, yet still contains enough nods and winks to convention to satiate even hardcore genre fans.