More mood than blood in ‘A Most Violent Year’

By Nathan Frontiero

(Before The Door Pictures)
(Before The Door Pictures)

We hear breathing on a black screen. A runner pants heavily before the camera reveals him jogging around New York City on a winter morning. He’s fit and keeps a strong, even pace. He wears a determined expression on his face. The sound of his breath fades beneath the soulful piano stabs of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Before we learn anything about this man, we get the sense he’s worked hard for everything he has.

The man is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of heating industry newcomer Standard Oil. He is unfailingly self-righteous and dead-set on success. The film posits him as its protagonist but never confirms the moral authority that he frequently claims. Abel states he strives to “take the path that is most right,” but writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps “A Most Violent Year” morally ambiguous.

The year is 1981 – the historically violent time from which the film takes its name – and “A Most Violent Year” thrives by establishing a bleak mood. Bradford Young’s cinematography mostly desaturates the colors, especially for outdoor scenes, to create an appropriately dated look. This particular winter in the city looks unforgivingly cold even when the camera steps indoors. Young brings bolder, warmer hues back in for interior scenes, but the colors maintain an eerie, uncanny quality.

The framing of scenes also emphasizes the tense, confrontational interactions between Abel and his competitors. Young and Chandor tightly frame individuals in conversation. People looking to the left of the frame are placed in the far right of the shot, and people looking to the right are placed in the far left. This arrangement makes each exchange between characters feel that much more aggressive. Industry rivals are literally as close to one another as possible without sharing the frame. These aesthetic choices keep the audience on edge.

Alex Ebert’s unsettling score perfectly integrates with the film’s eerie visuals. The mostly electronic music is murky and haunting. Deep, foreboding synthesizers drone over occasional strings. The film’s ominous aural tone matches its narrative arc. This is a film that broods. It’s a slow burner in the best sense of the term. The music lends a feeling of immense gravity to otherwise elusive scenes. Every solemn cue seems to foreshadow some Faustian doom for Abel as he stalks toward the goal of expanding his business.

“A Most Violent Year” kept me engaged, even as it refused to lay all of its cards on the table. This is largely due to stellar performances from the co-stars. Oscar Isaac deftly balances Abel’s intimidating, hell-bent exterior with his nervous, skewed conscience. His speech is as careful and measured as his stride. He keeps his eyes blank when instructing new hires in the art of the sell. He is both the clearest audience proxy and the most suspicious character in the film. Isaac tremendously conveys this dichotomy.

Jessica Chastain is equally compelling as Abel’s wife, Anna. Her character is more sparsely written than Isaac’s, but she sinks just as deeply into the role. She disappears behind Anna’s pragmatic aura. Anna is magnetic in her unpredictability. Chastain’s character moves according to her own close-to-the-chest agenda and the actress is magnetic. It’s horrifying and exhilarating to watch her and Isaac go at each other’s throats.

I wish the film’s payoff were as thrilling as its buildup. Chandor, Isaac and Chastain held me completely captive, but I couldn’t shake the feeling upon leaving the theater that something was missing. “A Most Violent Year” creates a stark, claustrophobic atmosphere. It repeatedly left me guessing as it inched towards its big final moment. But that moment never comes.

Chandor cooks up an intriguing ideological stew without painting the masterstroke of his thesis. The film disappears like a wisp on the wind. Its energy sputters out by the time the final shot cuts to black. For a film that nearly promises a violent consummation of the tension that pervades its plot, “A Most Violent Year” bows on an oddly quiet note. The film has plenty to love yet still left me wanting more. Maybe I’m just as greedy as the oil-mongers.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected]