‘A Most Violent Year’ and How to Do the ’80s Onscreen

Look, the ‘80s was a funny decade. The clothing was ridiculous, the hair was worse, the music was bananas, and, as best as we can put it together from our current vantage point, everyone was on cocaine. As a result, when contemporary filmmakers tell stories set in that decade (and the adjoining, disco-crazy late-‘70s), there’s a tendency to amp up the period silliness and play it for laughs — or, at least, ironic counterpoint. The wigs are permed to the max. They seek out the widest lapels and deepest necklines, and open the button-up shirts to roughly the navel, so’s to better spotlight the gold chains buried in the nests of chest hair. And the soundtrack becomes a camp mixtape, full of the goofiest songs from late K-TEL and early MTV. I’m not talking just about American Hustle (a film I actually liked, thank you very much), but it’s indicative of a particular approach to the recent-period piece, a kind of wacky-dress-up/karaoke style that has become the norm for pictures of this type. And that’s part of what makes J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year so interesting: it purposefully eschews that notion, treating its 1981 setting almost as an afterthought.

Writer/director Chandor (banging out his third film in four years, after Margin Call and All is Lost) tells the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant and businessman who finds himself caught up in a fierce war with his rivals in the business of — wait for it — heating oil. It’s not sexy, but it’s valuable, and his trucks keep getting swiped at gunpoint by competitors unknown. On top of those almost-daily thefts, he finds himself in the sights of a law enforcement probe — which quickly endangers a deal for a new facility, which could either remake him or break him entirely.

Jessica Chastain in "A Most Violent Year"

Isaac’s performance recalls Pacino in the first Godfather — he’s a steely, serious guy trying to stay above the fray who keeps getting pushed below it. Much of the pushing is done not by his enemies but by his wife (and mobster’s daughter) Anna, played by Jessica Chastain in a Lady Macbeth-ish mood; “You’re not gonna like what happens when I get involved,” she tells her husband, and you believe her. She gets quite possibly the best single moment in the movie, quietly confronting the district attorney (David Oyelowo) who’s sent cops to search their home during their daughter’s birthday party. “This is probably one you’re gonna regret,” she tells him, coldly and chillingly. “This was very disrespectful.”

If all this sounds like quite a lot of sturm und drang over heating oil, you have to applaud Chandor for at least going the distance with an untold story, rather than taking another run around the track with drugs or guns. And besides, Abel’s business is just a MacGuffin anyway; it still results in violence and intrigue and a French Connection-style foot-and-subway chase and a shoot-out on the 59th Street Bridge that’s downright nerve-jangling.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in "A Most Violent Year"

But A Most Violent Year isn’t all gangster-flick sensationalism; much of its is people talking in rooms, which is probably why it’s drawing so many comparisons to the work of Sidney Lumet. It’s particularly reminiscent of Prince of the City and Q&A, two films he made on either end of the 1980s that dealt with crime and corruption in an increasingly grim Gotham — and films that were made in his uniquely invisible and un-showy style. Chandor follows that lead, so its sense of time is casual: it’s never announced explicitly, merely conveyed in clothes and cars (notable for their lack of flamboyance) and half-heard news reports and Alex Ebert’s brilliant score, filled with echoes of Scarface-era Giorgio Moroder. Yes, sure, it’s fun to point and laugh at the silliness of our recent past, as (to varying degrees) pictures like Hustle, Casino, and American Psycho do. But it’s perhaps more interesting—and certainly more difficult—to do what Chandor does here: instead of directing a movie that screams “HEY, IT’S THE ‘80S,” he made one that looks, sounds, and feels like a refugee from that era, and lets the audience do the rest.

A Mosts Violent Year is out today in limited release.