“A Most Violent Year” is a movie with a somewhat misleading title. Despite one that implies action or, at the very least, some graphic content, the film rarely depicts onscreen violence, nor does it show anything particularly sexy or exciting. No, “A Most Violent Year” is instead a slow burner, a masterful crime drama that would feel right at home alongside the best the genre has to offer.
The year is 1981 and Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a business owner of a New York oil company. He is currently working on closing a deal on some prime real estate that will give him significant business advantages over his competitors. However, he finds himself struggling because his trucks keep getting robbed and the oil sold to one of those competitors. On top of that, there is an investigation underway in regards to his company, along with the entire industry as a whole. Some serious charges are going to be brought against him and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who may be responsible for many of them in the first place.
It may not sound like much, but this set-up leads to some suspenseful, emotional and sometimes even frightening scenes, exemplified in an early sequence when Abel walks around his darkened house looking for an intruder. And watching these scenes unfold is like watching a brilliant play come to life. Aside from one chase scene and one shootout, the movie maintains a small scope, usually opting to focus on its characters.
And with characters like this, such a decision should be applauded. Abel is a confident and sharp-tongued businessman who never backs down from threatening or uncomfortable situations and tells it like it is. But at the same time, he’s honorable. Despite the impending charges that could threaten his business, he does his best to keep on the good side of the law. The few moments where he does take action in potentially unlawful ways come as an effect of unlawful actions being taken against him. What he does is understandable, even as his priorities of business first and everything else after ensuring he never becomes a completely sympathetic character.
Then again, flawed characters are generally more interesting and such is the case here in nearly every regard. Anna, anchored by an outstanding performance from Jessica Chastain, is the least conscientious of the two, the moment her true colors come out as she emotionlessly kills a deer being a standout scene of the film. Chastain brilliantly crafts a strong, intelligent female out of a character stuck in an era when women were more expected to abide by traditional gender roles than they are today. She plays the good wife to those around her, but her motivations and actions show there is much more bubbling beneath the surface, perhaps a genetic trait from her father, a well-known gangster from the area who has, presumably, since passed.
All of this is enhanced by a truly magnificent score, as it perfectly punctuates each scene. Otherwise rote dialogue, like early on when Abel gives a motivational speech to his salesman, is enhanced by a score that implies some sinister desires beneath his seemingly simple words. The score beautifully hints that the characters aren’t all they seem to be at first and while those character arcs and revelations aren’t exactly surprising, the score nevertheless remains a fascinating and integral component to who they eventually become.
“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to be for everybody. After a little more than two hours at a sometimes slow and occasionally uneventful pace, some viewers may want more. But for those with a little patience to spare, “A Most Violent Year” is guaranteed to be one of the most interesting movies you’ll have seen this year, with a thoughtful ending that will leave you with plenty to ponder over when the credits finally roll.