“If a bomb goes off, that’s a surprise, but if the audience knows the bomb is there, that’s suspense.”
That is a very loose paraphrasing of a lesson taught by the late Alfred Hitchcock, and that’s exactly the sort of stuff that was running through my head as I watched J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. It’s a calm, quiet, low-key, and absolutely gripping film about a man struggling to stay honest in a world run by corruption, and it’s the third piece of evidence (after 2011’s Margin Call and 2013’s All is Lost) that this writer/director is here to stay — and that we should probably start looking forward to whatever he’s making next.
Despite what the title may imply, A Most Violent Year is not exactly an “action-heavy” crime story. It does feature a few exciting moments — including one hell of a foot chase — but Mr. Chandor is clearly less interested in bullets and blood, and considerably more intrigued by themes of morality, loyalty, tenacity, cleverness, and simple decency. Basically, A Most Violent Year feels like a love letter to Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, old-school film noir in general, and viewers who savor great dialogue even more than hyper-kinetic action scenes and/or comfortably predictable plot contortions.
The plot is pretty simple stuff: Abel Morales (a truly excellent Oscar Isaac, who often comes off like a young Al Pacino here) runs a heating oil business in New York City, 1981. Despite being entrenched in ‘the most violent year’ in the history of New York City, Abel is firmly intent on running his business as cleanly as possible. Abel is no fool; he knows there are dirty cops and even dirtier crooks running rampant in his neighborhood, but he insists on sticking to his own moral code in even the diciest of situations.
It helps that Abel has a brilliant accountant for a wife (Jessica Chastain, also great) and a colorfully seedy lawyer (Albert Brooks, as cool as ever) to handle the “behind-the-scenes” dirty work, which is what gives A Most Violent Year a thematic hook that many similar films do not. Our hero gets to believe that his hands are clean, but only because he’s the front man. The further the story progresses, the more cracks start to show. What begins as a simple — if rather nasty — feud between business competitors gradually blossoms into a fascinating chain of events involving carjacking, shootouts, and more than one brush with the big bosses in the departments of organized crime and law enforcement.
Just as you start to realize that A Most Violent Year is more of a clever morality play and less of an action fest, that’s when the suspense starts to build. The film displays an effortless confidence as it carries us through all of the hardships and hassles that Abel has to contend with — and then effortlessly transforms into a suspense thriller in which rotten men and bad fortune wait behind every corner. A Most Violent Year is a pressure cooker, basically. and with its flawless early-’80s production design, its smoothly intense editorial structure, and (at least) three flawless acting performances — it also ranks among one of the year’s most unexpectedly excellent films.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos