REVIEW | Despite lack of action, ‘A Most Violent Year’ maintains suspense

J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is a crime drama that requires a lot of patience from the audience. Part of this comes from the fact that the title promises a much different, more exciting movie.

Chandor’s picture is set in New York in 1981, a year that historically had the most violent crime in the city, but virtually all of those crimes are done off-screen. During the entire two-hour-and-five-minute running time, there’s only one gunfight and a single foot chase.

Instead, things unfold in a very meticulous and coy way, and Chandor is more interested in what’s going on internally in his characters than on the outside. It’s a slow burn, but those in the mood for a deliberate and suspenseful character-driven crime saga should come away satisfied.

The movie revolves around Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who believes very strongly in hard work and the American dream. He operates a heating-oil business out of Long Island, with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and his consigliore, Andrew Walsh (another terrific dramatic turn from Albert Brooks).

When we first meet Abel, he’s in the process of buying a piece of property, where he can receive and deliver oil more easily and store more gallons. However, he runs into trouble when his trucks start to get hijacked one after another, and to make matters worse, the district attorney is bringing charges against his business. This makes “A Most Violent Year” a gangster picture, but Chandor never makes clear exactly what illegal activities Abel and Anna are involved in.

Isaac continues his hot streak as an actor, giving a superbly unassuming and scrupulous performance that maintains this sense of ambiguity for the duration of the film. Abel wears nice suits and sports a mobster-style comb-over, but he lives and acts modestly. He wants his business to grow, but he doesn’t come off as greedy or power-hungry. For the most part, Abel keeps a calm and patient demeanor, rarely losing his temper. To buy the property, he goes through a major bank to get a loan, a move that feels very un-gangster-like, and most importantly, we never see Abel directly take part in any illegal activities.

At the same time, because his trucks keep getting stolen and because the police are launching this investigation, there’s clearly something going on. Isaac always portrays Abel as being stable and in control, even as he struggles to keep his business from failing. At no point does he seem totally innocent, as if he’s being wrongfully targeted by the police or rival gangs/businesses. However, because Abel isn’t upfront about his criminality, we’re forced to examine the character and his actions more carefully.

As good as Isaac is, Chastain equals him in every way. She, too, gives a powerfully understated and ambiguous performance. Her Anna is at once a faithful wife/business partner and a dominant, independent woman, whose motives aren’t always clear. Together, Abel and Anna make for one of the most compelling and mysterious married couples in a movie this year.

Like Abel and Anna, the rest of “A Most Violent Year” is also unassuming and requires careful viewing. Since things happen in a very low-key, measured manner, it’s easy to miss subtle developments in the narrative. Important bits of information are revealed in casual conversation. Certain scenes — for example, when Abel and Anna hit a deer as they’re driving home and Anna kills the animal swiftly and apathetically with a gun after Abel takes too long — that seem random initially, actually expose important aspects of the characters. Chandor maintains this methodical pacing throughout the entire movie, never feeling the need to speed things up or over-explain things. In this regard, the picture doesn’t talk down to the audience.

In addition, Chandor uses this subtlety to create tension. Everything feels too calm and low-key, so you watch in anticipation for something explosive and out-of-the-ordinary to happen.

Also, by setting the movie in the year with the most violent crime, Chandor creates an even greater sense of suspense and paranoia. In the film, violent crime is treated like an ominous presence that always looms in the background; we may not experience much of it directly on screen but it’s always there, putting strain on the characters, as well as us. And all of this is accomplished with the utmost of ease and authenticity; not once does any of tension feel forced or over-the-top.

“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to do well with the general audience. It’s simply too slow, and not enough happens on a large, visible scale. Not that Chandor’s previous two efforts — “All is Lost” and “Margin Call,” two fantastic movies in their own right — were crowd-pleasers either, but given the title of this one I have a feeling it will probably be received the poorest.

What happens in the film certainly isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s an expertly crafted and acted drama/thriller that’s able to sustain a feeling of dread and uncertainty all the way up until the final frame.