Movies about gangsters are so abundant is almost a genre by itself, but 'A Most Violent Year' offers a quite different approach, one that you cannot qualify as surprising or really new, but brave and determined enough to be considered a rewarding and extremely solid film.
'A Most Violent Year' is a crime drama that revolves around corruption, ambitions and the means to fulfill them. But although what the title would suggest, that familiar pattern doesn't transform the movie into a film of Mob monsters, rampant violence with a cool soundtrack. Most of the movie deals with the inner turmoils and the tensions of being constantly under pressure, swinging within and without the thin red line of what's right and what's wrong.
Set during the winter of 1981, among the top crime-ridden years in New York City's history, the film follows the attempts of Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac in a magnetic, powerful performance, a former truck driver of a heating oil company, of becoming a successful business man, leading the aggressively expanding oil company he bought to his father in law, a well known mobster. But Abel, despite his bold ambitions and dubious accounting department controlled by his wife Anna, played flawlessly by Jessica Chastain, is determined to make his name while carrying his business with decency. In the middle of a turf war between the city area oil companies.
Abel's company is in a crucial moment, and in a major struggle as well. He's about to buy a vast area, a waterfront fuel yard, a facility that would no doubt will make a difference for his business within the market. But justice is investigating him and he's about to get indicted, so banks are about to withdraw their economic support, indispensable to complete the needed purchase. Moreover, his trucks are constantly assaulted, robbing the gas and making his drivers bashed. They demand being able to start carrying guns to defend themselves, a dangerous possibility which his business partner Andrew, played by always solid Albert Brooks, also considers necessary. Many fires to put out for Abel, who is even attacked at his new, flamboyant house. Something that makes Anna react, pushing him to accept "the family help". But Abel's wants to remain clean... in its somewhat ambiguous style (in my opinion).
Writer-director J.C. Chandor chooses to enroll the spectator into an icy and gloomy world of conversations in parking lots, dark offices and state-of-the-art but isolated houses. It's a study character looking to conquer the American Dream, a dream far from heroic, and that seems to imply, almost irremesibly, "getting dirty", within a superb period recreation. The pace is slow but nail-biting, and the action scenes are wisely disseminated here and there to make the movie evolve fluently while the atmosphere and overall mood keeps sombre, content and poignant. I have read several critics comparing Chandor's style with Sidney Lumet. I agree completely... and happily. A thrilling modern movie done in an old school way.
Flaws? The style and tone dominates the film so much at times devours the character development. There's a lack of empathy with the main characters or, a demand for a bigger emotional implication. A bit more of Anna and Abel as mere humans and as a couple would have been interesting to see. My other doubt has to do with the movie end and some minor developments: the way the last bulk of the funds arrive, the crucial information that has been hidden to Abel... Kind of a lame resolution in an otherwise very good film.