The sole shoot-out in A Most Violent Year consumes a small fraction of its two-hour runtime. It produces no visible blood and no serious physical injuries. The scene even ends with its adversaries fleeing the cops together. However, it does have long-lasting repercussions for many people not present – and that, in a nutshell, is the film’s entire modus operandi, showing how ill-fated, emotionally-compromised choices create a ripple effect that not only destroy years of careful planning, but also beget even more opportunities for frustration and chaos.
The film takes place in the winter of 1981 in New York City, where Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a thriving heating oil business, built upon years of hard work, sacrifice, and his bootstrap-pulling attitude. His next big move involves the acquisition of a waterfront storage facility that could give him a huge advantage over his competitors – a deal contingent on the approval of a critical bank loan. Unfortunately for Abel, it’s a rather inconvenient time for anyone to scrutinise his business. Someone is sending armed thugs to hijack his delivery trucks, threatening the safety of his drivers and Abel’s standing with the Teamsters union. And if that weren’t enough, a crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating the heating oil industry for financial fraud, and is suspicious of the books kept by Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a old-school Brooklyn gangster.
Morales’ tale unfolds like a Greek tragedy – and, at times, exhibits the same penchant for dramatic coincidence – while Isaac carries the film with the same commanding-yet-sombre presence that propelled the equally excellent Inside Llewyn Davis. A staunchly moral man, Abel is fighting for his family’s future as well as his own mortal soul. The character has his own kind of sanctimonious hubris, ignoring the counsel of his pragmatic legal adviser (Albert Brooks), but his greatest challenge is preventing the city itself from infecting him with its sleaze and corruption. A Most Violent Year is obliquely a Mafia thriller, though writer-director J.C. Chandor wisely assumes that we’ve seen plenty of those. Instead, he offers a spellbinding meditation on moral decay and the struggle to keep fear from compromising our deeply-held principles – a conflict that’s just as gripping without any bloodshed.