A Most Violent Year: An Instant Classic

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac star in A Most Violent Year.

Sometimes directors come out of the gate so fully formed it’s breathtaking. The ultimate example of this is Orson Welles (Citizen Kane was his first movie), but more recently, luminous talents such as Paul Thomas Anderson (first film Hard Eight) and J.C. Chandor have majorly announced themselves with their rookie projects.

J.C. Chandor’s first movie was the near perfect Margin Call, which followed the financial meltdown over the course of 24 hours. His next film was the formally ascetic man-at-sea parable All is Lost. And now comes his best yet, A Most Violent Year, which feels like an instant classic, an effortlessly cool inversion of the immigrant story, the gangster story, and, above all, one of the most astute movies about making money and building a business I have ever seen.

Concerning itself with the unsexy business of home heating oil in the spectacularly grim period of early 1980s New York, A Most Violent Year follows Latin immigrant Abel Morales (a brilliant Oscar Isaac) on his steely quest to expand his business. But outside pressures are bearing down on him. His delivery trucks are routinely held up, thugs stalk his new modern mansion, a crucial deal to buy a delivery port falls into jeopardy, and a series of criminal charges are imminent.

Abel works in a literally and figuratively grimy business. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, a force of nature), comes from a mobster family, and most of his competitors and colleagues are gangsters or one generation removed. One of the most alluring things about the film is its depiction of the blurred intersection of criminality and “going straight.” Many films love to posture about being about grey lines, but A Most Violent Year fully  lives it. This is a movie that understands how complicated “doing the right thing” can be, what getting rich and building an empire actually takes, and how the American Dream can grind people up, especially immigrants, as much as it offers  riches.

A Most Violent Year is remarkable in that it is a deeply thrilling and sexy movie that contains no sex and almost no violence. Isaac and Chastain have tremendous chemistry, and Chandor has the restraint and precision of peak-era Mann or Sidney Lumet (the egregiously underrated Lumet masterpiece is an obvious reference point for this film). The cinematography by up-and-coming wunderkind Bradford Young (he also shot Selma) is top notch, using unusual and highly authentic locations to  capture the atmosphere of early ’80s New York. It’s an incredibly exhilarating experience to see a movie like this in 2015. See it in the theaters if you can.  A