Don’t let the title fool you. “A Most Violent Year” doesn’t have fight scenes, much gunfire or even a Steven Seagal cameo. The violence implied in the title refers to the time. Set in 1981 New York, statistically one of the most brutal years in the city’s history, it’s really the story of a man trying to sidestep violence and grab the American Dream by the tail.
Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, a young man in an old and dangerous game—the oil business. His distribution business is successful and about to expand, but there are problems. An aggressive city attorney (David Oyelowo) is sniffing around his finances while someone—a business rival perhaps—is systematically hijacking his trucks. Each time a truck loaded with oil disappears it erodes his bottom line and puts his dream of a waterfront distribution depot further out of reach. At home the violence and corruption of the times seeps into his personal life as his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster, gets restless.
Director J.C. Chandor is unafraid to take his time telling this story. Some will find his deliberately paced film a bore, others a slow burn. He concentrates on the characters, not the situations, putting Abel’s honesty and entrepreneurial spirit front and center. Much time is given to overcoming setbacks through sheer strength of will. His iron resolve is the character’s cornerstone, and much dialogue is devoted to it, but Isaac’s nicely delivered, understated performance keeps it from becoming repetitive.
The fireworks (such that they are) come later when Abel is at the end of his rope. Chastain (in a far more interesting performance than her work in “Interstellar”) on one side, corruption and violence on the other, the film pushes Abel, building to a satisfying climax. Still, Chandor doesn’t allow “A Most Violent Year” to live up to its name. A truck chase is pulse racing and a sub-plot about driver traumatized by a hijacking adds a hint of character-driven action, but the real tension comes from the fraught atmosphere Chandor creates with ruthless efficiency behind the camera and the restrained performances in front of it.