We've seen these settings before. This is the underbelly of industrial New York or maybe New Jersey. Which is where we saw them for the eight years or so of The Sopranos. Then men get out of cars and go inside a run down building. A transaction takes place. We instantly know that the terms of it are going to be trouble for one of the signatories to the deal. One side of that deal is a small group of Hasidic(?) Jews who have a property to sell. The other is a handsome, elegantly dressed, impeccably coiffed young man Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and he's accompanied by his lawyer, an older man, (I didn't recognise Albert Brooks but there you are).
This will be Abel's story as he picks his way through a minefield of plot and complication. He lives in a world of market rigging. His ambitions are such that wants to run a respectable business and take market share off his opposition. That opposition run a small local cartel and most don't appreciate Abel's business expansion plans. One among them however actively encourages spivs and thugs to bust up Abel's business and steal his product. Abel (spoiler alert from here) traps him and gets his money back. Abel's threat is to go to the cops, the same cops who are trying to bust up the small-time cartel activities.
This is intricate stuff and, given that JC Chandor made the similarly complex Margin Call in 2011 you wonder whether he has a degree in economics as well as whatever qualifications he's acquired to make very good movies.
I'm hazarding a guess now but I have to wonder whether Chandor hasn't read the Boston-based fiction of George V Higgins. Higgins first book The Friends of Eddie Coyle was made into a fine movie by the English import Peter Yates in 1973 though its initial reception was apparently modest. There were no more movies made from Higgins' books until Andrew Dominik got to make Killing Them Softly in 2011, based on the author's third book "Cogan's Trade". That was coarse and vulgar version of Higgins work, full of flashy characters completely at odds with the types that Higgins describes. But at this pace it will take another 1,200 years to run through George V's oeuvre.
Chandor has made it easy by writing the thing himself and no doubt the criminal milieu he depicts is drawn from many sources, including the aforementioned Sopranos. But it departs in significant ways and those ways correspond to the way Higgins told his stories. First there is the simple fact that the film's story is carried forward by a series of short and occasionally long conversations. Notwithstanding the title, the film is not one which relishes violence and again that's notwithstanding the ending which has the same sort of out of left field moment that Higgins liked.
Most important though is the construction of Abel's character and the way he deals with crises. We first see him jogging not long before his fateful meeting with the Jewish property vendors. His voice is rarely raised. The only loud argument he has is with his wife when he discovers (another spoiler alert) she has been cooking his company books and has skimmed off a lot of money, putting it away for the inevitable rainy day. The next morning Abel simply concedes that notwithstanding that she stole the money from him, her proposed course of action to use it is the right one. He can thus also avoid going into debt to one of his business rivals.
A Most Violent Year is a fine concoction. It plays against all the gangster type, most notably where whacks and hits are the way of dealing with problems. Abel's resourceful mind looks for peaceful solutions. That's quite a variation on the common theme and I think it can be traced all the way back to the way George V Higgins told his stories and settled into a niche that chronicled Boston Business, crime and politics for thirty years or so. Maybe Chandor too, taking into account what he achieved with Margin Call, has this Balzacian desire to chronicle the big and small of the way business works in the world's biggest economy. A few more films exploring the themes and characters wont go astray.