Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a heck of a rocket start to his career. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his first film, Margin Call, and he steered Robert Redford toward his best performance in years in All Is Lost. Now he’s back at it again with the period drama A Most Violent Year.
Set in New York City in 1981, it follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a small-time oil and gas distributor who’s looking to make it big. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of mobster, and she might not have left that way of life completely behind.
Oscar Isaac, who is having a good few years thanks to this and Inside Llewyn Davis, rarely, if ever, raises his voice. But he gives Abel confidence and humility.
Abel is in the midst of trying to grow his business through the purchase of a prime riverside property when his delivery trucks start getting attacked. At the same time, the district attorney’s office, led by D.A. Lawrence (David Oyelowo), is threatening to indict him for supposed crimes related to the running of the business.
Despite appearances, Abel is determined to be as honest a businessman as possible, and it’s the juggling of the numerous balls that come his way that drives the film’s plot. To keep things moving, Chandor has Abel constantly on the defensive, from literal physical attacks to ones that would affect him legally or business-wise.
Although the story is interesting and has its harrowing moments, it’s the performances that make the film. Isaac, who’s having a good few years thanks to this, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is a quiet force as Abel. He rarely, if ever, raises his voice, but he gives the character both a confidence and a humility that serves him well throughout.
Chastain, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for this, keeps her stellar reputation intact. Anna provides strength on multiple fronts, and with Chastain in the role, you don’t doubt her ability at any time. Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, who plays Abel’s attorney, only add to the film’s acting bona fides.
A Most Violent Year doesn’t have the storytelling power to make it one of the best films of the year, but it does serve as a reminder that these actors will continue to be forces for years to come.