All hail the reluctant criminal. He is not your typical Sheisty McShyster, opportunistic and unscrupulous. He adheres to his own code of ethics, sure, but behind that, there is vision, ambition and, most importantly, a sense of urgency. Such urgency may spur corruption and lies, but when the reluctant criminal does do harm he believes, to the very end, that it was the most necessary course of action. And there is a certain kind of honor in maintaining your convictions, no? After all, it’s not always easy to do the wrong thing.

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year powerfully depicts the captivating conundrum of such a character. Set in New York, 1981, the film follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant and an entrepreneur, as he chases his American dream: expanding his heating-oil business during one of the city’s most violent years.

Perhaps Abel’s last name—Spanish for morals—should give us a not-so-subtle clue about the struggle that will ensue. Just as Abel plunks his savings into some coveted real estate that will transform his business into a true empire, pressure mounts from all fronts, jeopardizing the deal and threatening to raze everything he has built. The cops start investigating some shady business dealings, mostly perpetrated by Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a gangster. Meanwhile his truck drivers and salesmen are being beaten and robbed. In the face of such adversity, Abel’s morales are put to the test.

A Most Violent Year is not your typical gangster movie, even though all signs—setting, subject matter, title—point to one.

As you might guess, this character and his conflict bring to mind one of the original reluctant criminals: The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. Both have no intention of becoming a gangster, and it takes an almost three-hour movie before Michael rolls up his sleeves. Abel’s experiences with violence and crime, however, are not so sensational, and A Most Violent Year is not your typical gangster movie, even though all signs—setting, subject matter, title—point to one.

Instead, this film continually defies the audience’s expectations of outright brutality. At the very start, the driver Julian (Elyes Gable), stopped on the highway, sees armed gunmen approach in his rearview mirror and recalls Sunny Corleone stopped at the toll road. The audience braces itself for massacre. However, the guns aren’t even fired—used only in a brief, undoubtedly painful, but plainly utilitarian beating.

More telling is when something suddenly collides with Abel and Anna’s car: a deer. Abel hesitates to kill even an animal, if only to put it out of its misery, but Anna steps in with a gun, without missing a beat. Perhaps the only true gangster in the film, Anna is also the one who cooks the books behind the scenes and pockets funds from the business for her family. While Abel will only cross the line when it is blurred—so he can contend he has taken the “most right path”—Anna is willing to get her hands dirty. Both break the law, but Abel has higher ideals with which to contend: his honor.

For the most part, however, he’s a pacifist, encountering the worst violence when he listens to the radio, whether it’s just the news or transmissions from his trucks. This is not a film that lavishes its audience with carnage. It turns out A Most Violent Year really isn’t that violent. But by steering clear of the sensational, it demonstrates the shades of gray that color exigent circumstances when ordinary people face them. Only when they feel they must do the characters resort to violence and crime during times of violence and crime.

Jessica’s not messing around with her Oscar bid this year…

This phenomenon is perhaps most powerfully illustrated in the subplot involving Julian. He portrays a very real kind of trauma after being attacked in the truck, and one can hardly blame him for returning to work armed. We watch how quickly things turn when Julian acts out of impulse, desperation and fear of another attack. He takes the law into his own hands, but he is also running scared and it is tragic.

Subtle, human motivation rather than flashy, banal action is what really renders the drama here. A Most Violent Year is a character-driven film and thankfully, Isaac and Chastain (who attended Juilliard together) are up to the task. Isaac lends a brand of dignity to his anti-gangster, who believes, “You will never do something as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.” Chastain also shines, defying your stereotypical (i.e. clueless) mob wife and establishing herself as a ballsy authority in her own right, at home and at work.

In a roundtable interview attended by Made Man, J.C. Chandor aptly described the characters he has brought to the screen: “They’re ordinary people. They walk around on planet earth the same way we do, one foot in front of the other. But you’re seeing them in these extraordinary periods of their life where they can’t stay where they are. They have to move. There’s a piano literally dropping, and usually, they had something to do with putting themselves in that position. In those moments, you learn who a person really is.”

More than a movie, A Most Violent Year is a thoughtful character study that may just spark some healthy introspection with which to ring in the New Year. You know, if you’re into that kinda thing…