Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the cool-tempered, highly driven, impeccably dressed protagonist of A Most Violent Year, is trying to be the poster boy for the American dream, but the American dream keeps turning nightmarish on him.
A Columbian immigrant, though his roots are left undiscussed — "Speak English," he urges an employee who entreats him in Spanish, "speak English" — Abel's now a business owner and family man in New York City. He has a stylish Brooklyn-born wife named Anna (an immensely enjoyable Jessica Chastain), two beautiful daughters, and a lavish new house. He's about to make a real estate deal for some waterfront property that could take his company, Standard Oil, to another level.
Also, he's being investigated by the DA (David Oyelowo), and his trucks keep getting hijacked on the road and turning up elsewhere emptied of their loads. It's 1981 — as the title promises, one of the most violent recorded periods in New York history — and Abel is being pressured to answer in kind while under the scrutiny of a legal system that doesn't seem to care that his competitors are all dirtier than he is. He willfully refuses to accept that going by the book isn't the same thing as playing by the (unwritten) rules.
There's plenty that's Godfather-like to A Most Violent Year, most of it emanating from Isaac, who with his camel coat, brushed back hair, and intense gaze often feels like he's channeling Al Pacino's brooding Michael Corleone. While Michael sought to make the family crime business legitimate, Abel doesn't want to consider being anything but in the first place. He's a player in an industry that is, on the outside, breathtakingly mundane — home heating oil, delivered around the five boroughs and sold door-to-door by the earnest young men and women that Abel coaches himself (the secret is prolonged eye contact).
But it's also, despite its seeming humbleness, a sizable and quietly cutthroat business with a long-established way of doing things that Abel's been bypassing. He's been ignoring the territories his rivals have divvied up for themselves and expanding his customer base by way of charm and good old-fashioned work ethic, and that's why his drivers are getting attacked, his oil is being stolen, and men with guns are skulking around his home. With 30 days to close a property deal that will clean him out if it falls through, Abel suddenly finds himself in desperate straits, scrabbling to stick to his principles when everyone else in his life, including his wife, is ready to brawl in the street.
A Most Violent Year ends up rhyming nicely with writer/director J.C. Chandor's first film, Margin Call, which presented investment bankers as their own sort of closed, brutish (though elevated, literally, in their glass Wall Street towers) industry, following a group of them over a tighter 24-hour timeline at the cusp of the 2008 economic crash. But both movies, while strong, make you wish Chandor were a little less hemmed in by good taste, less fussy about the weight of the themes he's dealing with.
Margin Call, despite its timeliness, was best when relishing in all the petty dick swinging, number crunching, and status calculating constantly going on amongst its would-be masters of the universe, each new bigwig coming on the scene with a grander entrance and snazzier suit over the course of a night that played its financial evaluations like a heist. And A Most Violent Year keeps almost giving in to the minor gangster saga bubbling around at its edges, one in which a bunch of outer borough family-owned heating oil businesses engage in regular shootouts on the 59th Street Bridge.
The movie does include a wonderfully tense sequence involving just that, as well as a joltingly unpredictable car chase. But mostly, it's marked by restraint, its main character's understated competence informing the movie itself. It's why Isaac, as good as he is, gets blown off the screen in every scene he shares with Chastain, whose character's father owned Standard Oil before Abel took it over, and who is itching to get dirty.
Whether going through the books with an adding machine and a glass of wine or revealing she's been carrying a gun, Anna's never less than a bruiser in designer duds. While forbearance is Chandor's point, when A Most Violent Year winds to an end, you kind of wish it was Anna's movie you were watching, one that would certainly conclude with more blood on its hands.