There’s a particular dearth of violence in “A Most Violent Year,” which is perhaps contradictory to its title. But violence is not the subject of the film; rather, it’s the backdrop for a story of corruption. There’s an inherent anger and frustration in the characters of this story, and “A Most Violent Year” is director J.C. Chandor’s (“All is Lost”) exploration of how that anger and frustration manifests itself. Honest businessmen, housewives, gangsters, hopeful employees, ultimately everyone turns to some form of corruption, and sometimes that corruption turns into violence.

A Most Violent Year

B
Rave and State Theatre
A24

Oscar Isaac (“The Two Faces of January”) plays Abel Morales, the wealthy immigrant owner of a heating company, which he bought from his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar”) gangster father. Abel prides himself on playing fairly, staying honest, never resorting to the shady dealings that the corrupt heating business tends to use. He’s good at what he does, better than most in the business, and he looks to expand. But assailants constantly rob his oil trucks while on the job, and the DA (David Oyelowo, “Selma”) is seeking to file charges against Abel, believing that he’s cheating the system. Abel wants to handle all of these matters honorably, working with the DA and the police, paying his debts on time, but the compounding weight of all of these issues threatens to undo his credo.

Really, what we have in “A Most Violent Year” is a perverse reworking of the fable of the American Dream. It seems honesty can only get one so far. The New York City presented here is a crumbling, ruinous center of urban and moral decay, and if those ruins can be navigated by stepping over or on that which hinders you, you can achieve success. But Chandor makes clear that with one’s success comes another’s failure. The American Dream is attainable, sure, but only to some — the rest will be crushed beneath it.

“A Most Violent Year” is not dissimilar to “The Godfather” in that each portrays the undoing of a good man; Oscar Isaac even resembles a young Al Pacino. Isaac’s Abel is an admirable character, vying desperately to retain those ideals that have carried him up the social ladder. It’s impossible not to hear the defeat in his voice when he says, “So this is what it’s come to? Walking outside like a couple of gangsters?”

But the film’s most compelling character is Anna. Chastain proves a force to be reckoned with as a sort of Lady Macbeth — seductive, persuasive, indomitable, almost femme fatale. Her charm is only superseded by her bite, undoubtedly grown out of her gangster upbringing. Chastain dominates the screen, taking control of each conversation, her eyes piercing into the souls of the other characters. She is utterly electrifying, and her absence from the Academy Awards’ Best Supporting Actress Category is truly regrettable.

Despite these performances, the film often drags through heavy-handed dialogue that, while important and plot driving, slows much of the film’s uneasy energy. Chandor also has no problem hitting the audience over the head with metaphors, going so far as to include a scene where Abel must rely on his wife to kill a deer that’s been hit by his car. But these early setbacks are overcome in the film’s second half when Abel is pushed further into the muck.

Chandor has an uncanny ability to pick apart the human psyche under pressure. How do we respond to adversity: do we yield to it? Fight it? Be destroyed by it? And if adversity is defeated, how much of ourselves have we lost? The streets of New York City are not paved with gold, but its rivers run black, thick like the oil of Abel’s tankers. And it’s in flowing down those rivers that Abel, for better or worse, finds his heart of darkness.

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