For hundreds of years, we’ve been told America was the land of opportunity. Immigrants from impoverished, oppressed countries tirelessly worked their way over here through perilous conditions. Death, for them, was a risk worth taking if it meant being liberated. The American dream was never an isolated creed designated only for far off admirers, but also a notion championed by its very people. Naturally, we got high off our own supply. My parents indoctrinated me with the crux of the American dream: if you work hard, do things right, and never give up, you can rise up in the social stratosphere, etching a worthwhile life of your own. It’s a pure, idealistic thought, but one that doesn’t entirely avoid the inequities built within the fabric of our nation. And even then, there’s an assumption of morality behind one’s ascension. As countless forms of media have dictated, we’d be foolish to think the “American dream” and moral indecency were mutually exclusive. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is learning this lesson in writer/director’s J.C. Chandor’s phenomenal A Most Violent Year.
Abel runs an emerging oil company in New York City in 1981. Abel, a man exploding with ambition and biting rhetoric, is on the cusp of realizing his American dream. Supported by a striking and powerful wife named Anna (Jessica Chastain), Abel lays the foundation of his dream by placing a massive deposit down for an abandoned oil terminal on the East River. If he can close the deal in 30 days, Abel will effectively cut the throat of his competitors, leaving a rush of crimson on their income statements. Despite my violent metaphor, Abel is a clean business owner; taking great pride in achieving success through honest means. Abel’s plan unravels when armed gunmen rob one of his company’s trucks. The robbery sets off a chain of dangerous events, forcing Abel to reconsider his methods of operation. And even though he has operated under industry standards, an argument that holds zero weight when the industry is known for its lack of standards, Abel’s pride comes under attack from an overzealous assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) looking to make an example out of him.
The dream Abel’s been harvesting for years is withering before his eyes. Abel and Anna methodically press on, refusing to secede their birthrights at the top of the food chain. Much of the film’s drama doesn’t derive from rising action or violent outbursts, which seems slightly counter intuitive based on the film’s title, but from Abel’s ever weakening stance against vicious and immoral actions. Exacerbating his dissolving resolve is not only his vicious competitors and the increased armed robberies against his truck drivers, but also Anna, who seems willing to dig a fresh grave if the situation called for it. The dynamic between Anna and Abel is scintillating. There’s a deep passion between the two, but as time wears thin and their adversaries begin breathing down their necks, both have contradictory sentiments on their dire situation. Anna, whose family has ties to the mafia, is the predator Abel refuses to be. She executes Abel’s vision without flinching. Abel, however, has the foresight that keeps his wife from biting the wrong throat, or from walking into a thinly veiled trap. In two of the year’s most underrated performances, Isaac and Chastain are illuminating as the dynamite couple.
Chastain is absolutely stunning in Anna’s skin, providing Anna with an unsurpassable guile and impenetrable will. Isaac as Abel perfectly counterbalances Chastain’s quiet ferocity. There’s an earnestness to Isaac’s performance that allows us to believe in Abel’s investment in pride and morality. Surrounding the couple are terrific dialog driven scenes that slowly squeeze our windpipe. Chandor’s interest in understated scenes help accentuate a thrilling third act, which features an absolutely agonizing chase sequence. The work from cinematographer Bradford Young sustains an unnerving mood, even in scenes taking place in broad daylight. Somehow, even the most illuminated shots are foreboding. Alex Ebert’s score, composed mostly of synths, resurrects a bygone era while eliciting an increasing level of angst from the viewer. Most importantly, Chandor’s writing is crisp and nuanced, and his direction is swift and restrained, allowing for the film’s bigger themes to breathe. As I walked away from A Most Violent Year, I didn’t see it as a film that judges its characters, or imposes a moral code on the viewer. Rather, Chandor is merely making a statement about the American dream: we all likely rolled up our sleeves and worked hard for our successes, but we can’t pretend our hands were entirely clean in doing so.