From the foreboding title, on through the funereal pallor of DP Bradford Young’s visuals, the mournfulness of Alex Ebert’s score, and the look of dread or resignation on the face of every character, A Most Violent Year is nothing if not tonally consistent. Oscar Isaac makes good on his career-igniting turn in Inside Llewyn Davis by channeling primo Pacino in the vulnerably cocky comportment of Abel Morales, an immigrant entrepreneur whose ambitions are beginning to conflict with his scruples in 1981 New York. His successful heating oil business has cut into the profits of his corrupt competitors, drawing increasingly violent attacks on his fleet of deliverymen just as he’s about to move into a fancy suburban home with his mobster’s- daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and close a deal on a game-changing business property.
Jersey boy J.C. Chandor exhibits a refreshing familiarity with the tribalist customs and deep-grooved routes of New York’s working class, and refrains from kitschy thrift store costuming à la American Hustle (though David Oyelowo’s New Yawk accent is about as convincing as a knockoff handbag). At its best, the film resembles the ambiguously empathetic, purposefully chiaroscurist portraiture of a James Gray.
Yet like David O. Russell, and seemingly every American dramatist of late, Chandor can’t trust the audience to discern intent but rather underscores and italicizes an imprecise, and by now quite cozy message about the dark heart of the American Dream.