All Is Lost was a one-man show with barely any dialogue set in a single location (more or less), A Most Violent Year boasts a tremendous ensemble cast, a dense, layered script and hops effortlessly around the industrial edges of New York. Both films, though, are about one thing: survival, and what must be sacrificed to achieve it. At least in this story, thankfully, nobody is forced to contemplate the consumption of their own wee.
Ambitious businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, sheltering beneath a towering quiff) owns and runs the Standard Heating Oil Company (named, presumably, after Isaac's character in Drive). Operating in a shady grey area somewhere at the limits of the law and aided by his aggressively determined missus (Jessica Chastain), he's on the verge of sealing a deal that will finally put him on the map, if only mysterious external forces wouldn't keep sabotaging his business. If any of that - plus the film's early 1980s setting - sounds familiar, then yes, you saw a suspiciously similar story when Bob Hoskins tried to redevelop London's Docklands in The Long Good Friday. But whereas that film predicted Thatcherism and the ruthless ambition of '80s England, A Most Violent Year is very much an American tale, concerned primarily with three of the USA's foremost preoccupations: oil, money and guns.
Morales' situation is small-scale in a film that feels like it should have a more epic, Godfather-y scope. Maybe that's down to his more-than-physical resemblance to Michael Corleone (not to mention fellow immigrant Tony Montana; if Isaac becomes this generation's Pacino, as is entirely likely, film historians will point to A Most Violent Year as the most obvious correlation), but in fact what we're watching is The American Dream in microcosm. And parts of it are more relevant to the present-day US than many of its citizens might comfortably admit.
Anna is played, in true Lady Macbeth style, by a lip-smacking Jessica Chastain. She's mad as eggs, but her desperation for wealth is all in the detail: she dresses like she thinks rich women dress but only has about three costumes throughout the whole film, and her obviously fake nails are a cheap attempt to cover the metaphorical dirt on her hands. Chastain's scenes with David Oyelowo's inquisitive District Attorney bristle with defensive animosity, and her chemistry with Isaac is almost perpetually on the edge of explosive.