A Most Violent Year — film review

Set in crime-ridden New York in 1981, J.C. Chandor’s drama-thriller is masterfully done
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Issac in ‘A Most Violent Year’

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Margin Call, then All Is Lost, now A Most Violent Year. Do you get the idea film-maker J.C. Chandor has a glass-half-empty view — even a glass-shoved-in-your-face view — of human existence? His new movie is a smartly scarifying drama-thriller whose characters are bled of their self-assurance, drop by drop, and so, in a voyeuristic way, are we.

The “most violent year” is 1981, start of the yuppie decade and statistically New York’s most crime-ridden twelvemonth until that point. Hispanic immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his gangster’s-daughter wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) want to boost their domestic-fuel oil supply business by buying a waterfront Brooklyn terminal. The Hasidic Jewish owners want a whopping deposit, forfeitable if the bill isn’t settled in 30 days. Start the clock . . . 

It’s The Godfather writ small, even written on the top of a baseball bat. Guns and bats are the prevailing arguments in this world. The company’s trucks are being hijacked. Rival racketeers skyrocket their lending terms when Abel loses a bank loan. At home, amid the echoey rooms and creeping winter shadows of their suburban new-build, Mr and Mrs Macbeth — sorry, Morales — anguish over their slippery grasp on power.

Chastain’s bangled blonde, her mind ticking under her hooker-trashy hair, sometimes takes charge. Isaac’s troubled Thane goes a whiter shade of pale even when exhorted, one night, to finish off a semi-roadkilled deer. Both actors — edgy, nuanced, as if subtly alert to danger’s scent — thrive on the acting between the lines (or in All Is Lost between no lines at all) that is Chandor’s speciality.

The film is masterfully done, like a ballet of doom where the music is atavistic refrains re-harmonised — there’s a mischievously clever “You’re walking us right into a trap” scene — and the bodies, if alive, are torqued in the defiant grace of agonies concealed. For backdrop the view of Manhattan, across the water from the terminal, is bewitching and sempiternal: symbol of the reason Mammon and God sometimes get confused in the brains of those for whom dominion is the closest they will ever get to divinity.

This article has been amended to reflect the fact that New York’s murder rate peaked in 1990.

Read Jessica Chastain and Giorgio Armani talk about the costumes in ‘A Most Violent Year’

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