A Most Violent Year builds tension through all facets of its construction. J. C. Chandor's direction is still and subtle. His low camera angles grant his characters a mythic quality in one scene, yet in the next they are dwarfed by the ever-present New York skyline in the background. Although the camera seldom moves (I can think of only a few handheld shots), it zooms slowly yet inevitably towards the characters, symbolizing how their world is closing in around them.
The cinematography by Bradford Young is stark and beautiful, characterized by a deep divide between outdoor and indoor scenes. Outside, harsh winter light lays everything out in shades of gray and brown; everything is visible and nothing escapes our view. Inside, the lights always seem to be turned off, or dimmed way down. Often the only source of light filters through closed shades, plunging the characters' faces into shadow. Young's lighting is reminiscent of that of Gordon Willis in The Godfather, which painted the criminal underworld only in blackness and flesh tones.
Alex Ebert's score is heavily synthesized, as you might expect of a film set in 1981, yet it does not insist on its electronic quality like so many others. The music rumbles below the action, swelling only occasionally and when it serves a purpose. It is tied inextricably to the protagonist, played by Oscar Isaac, because it surfaces when he is faced with one of the many difficult choices throughout the film. It is at times ominous, enraged, and optimistic with hope for the American Dream.
The story is about a successful heating fuel businessman, Abel Morales, for whom everything starts to collapse. The drivers on his trucks are being hijacked, the funding for his make-or-break deal has vanished, the law is cracking down on his industry for perceived wrongdoings, and his relationship with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) has taken a downturn. These issues keep piling up, and only Abel's steely resolve seems to keep everything together. He refuses to take the easy path, by resorting to criminal activity, but that solution seems increasingly inevitable, especially in light of Anna's underhanded management of the books. Abel is strikingly dissimilar to many modern protagonists, because he never once feels like he is meant to be an anti-hero. Despite the fact that he is in business to make money for himself, he feels reminiscent of Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet's Serpico, in the sense that he is a lone good man dwelling in a world of corruption.
Isaac's resemblance to a young Pacino also carries this parallel further. As Abel, he rarely externalizes his emotions, responding to even the worst news with a muttered curse under his breath and little else. He speaks quietly and raises his voice only to Anna, who is able to break through Abel's exterior like no one else. She sees through the performance he puts on for other people, and understands his weakness against the prospect of violence. When he strikes a deer while driving, Abel hesitates to put the animal down with a tire iron; several gunshots ring out when we realize that Anna has blasted the beast with a small pistol of her own. In a gender role reversal, Chastain oozes mobster aggression in every aspect of her being, from her revealing clothing, tacky fake nails, and lavish makeup. She may have hit the top financially, but she's still a scrapper underneath it all.
The pace of A Most Violent Year is slower than any other film I've seen from 2014, and it initially had me squirming in my seat. But once I got used to it, I found myself to be utterly engrossed in the hemmed-in world created by Chandor and his crew. It gives us another variation on New York, one that is industrial and functional; the only city streets we get are from the inside of a car or the broken down alleys on the fringes of the metropolis. I don't know yet if A Most Violent Year is a great film, but I'm confident that the distance of some years may make it so.