A Most Violent Year is one of the best movies of 2014, but it doesn’t come at you with any flash or a booming soundtrack. Set in a snowy New York City in 1981, it’s all about early Reagan-era greed crushing Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a businessman drowning in stick-up men and mounting debts that threaten to destroy everything he’s built. Anna (Jessica Chastain) is his loyal but dangerous wife, whose creative accounting and poor impulse control invites the DA (David Oyelowo) and the Feds to close in with a search warrant.
If the story were just about the Morales family and their volatile domestic situation, A Most Violent Year would still have more than enough to offer based on the chemistry of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. As actors, they seem completely in sync with each other, almost to the point where if they’re not in a scene together, you can imagine that one of them is off-camera, in character, listening for just one word to jump in on.
For a crime drama, the best thing about the movie is that so much of it happens on foot. There’s great drawn-out, man-to-man chase sequences, the kind that conjure up The French Connection or any other ‘70s cop thrillers, where it’s shocking when someone finally takes a bullet. The good guys and bad guys are equals, and they talk things out calmly, rationally and with a wry sense of humour – all a joy to watch. An added treat is seeing Albert Brooks (who was so memorable a few years ago in Drive) play a supporting role as a sarcastic accountant, bringing that light craziness from the heyday of ‘70s hustler characters.
A Most Violent Year is only the third feature for writer/director J.C. Chandor, but based on the amount of high-profile recognition he’s received from the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, and the National Board of Review, he’s quietly becoming a one-to-watch director. His cerebral choices in this movie don’t require any exaggerated performances, bold “neon-sign” costumes, or too many special effects. His dialogue is sparse and complements action scenes where people’s screw-ups not only cost them dearly but also highlight a growing violence in the city as it transitions from the end of the “Me Decade,” the ‘70s, into the turbulent ‘80s.
Reverence for the past in A Most Violent Year is heady but cool, making it easy to feel for this couple, the Morales’, chasing a dream at the start of a very unforgiving decade.
A Most Violent Year opens January 30.