‘Most Violent Year’ restrained, gripping 

click to enlarge Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are excellent as a New York couple facing challenges in “A Most Violent Year.” - COURTESY A24 FILMS
  • Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are excellent as a New York couple facing challenges in “A Most Violent Year.”
An immigrant entrepreneur chooses an upright path in a corrupt and ruthless industry in “A Most Violent Year.” Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s film isn’t the action sizzler or American tragedy the title hints at – it’s a stirring drama about the unsexy subject of moral compromise in business.

Chandor, who made the financial-meltdown drama “Margin Call” and the lost-at-sea adventure “All Is Lost,” is batting a thousand with this latest story about the casualties of capitalism and desperate efforts to stay afloat.

It transpires in 1981 in New York City. Crime and danger are soaring as mood-setting wide shots show.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a heating-oil business and runs it ambitiously but decently in a competitive, gangster-controlled environment. An American success story who rarely acknowledges his immigrant roots, Abel drives a Mercedes and dresses flawlessly. He shares a spacious home with his tougher-talking, mob-raised wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and two young daughters.

Abel has 30 days to come up with the $1.5 million balance he owes on some land that would allow his business to expand.

Initially, it seems obtainable. But a prosecutor (David Oyelowo), conducting an industrywide probe, charges Abel with fraud. And, with a turf war raging. someone is hijacking Abel’s company trucks, brutalizing drivers and stealing oil.

Abel suppresses his pride and makes desperate visits to potential funding sources. He also hunts for whoever is attacking his trucks, all the time opposing the use of violence or illegal means. Anna views his restraint as weakness.

The film lacks the impact of Sidney Lumet fare that its corruption themes recall. And while its brown tones and mobsters suggest the “Godfather” films, it’s not as entertaining or tragic as Francis Coppola’s masterworks.

Yet Chandor has created a slow-but-steady boiler about immigrants wanting a stake in the dream, and businesspeople of all stripes who strike imperfect deals between conscience and survival.

Stellar moments of predicament and personality abound, such as a Mamet-style session in which Abel coaches new salespersons in how to convince a homeowner to become a customer (slightly overdo the eye contact; request tea, which is classier than coffee).

Though the movie’s chases are top-rate, there’s even greater heat from the push-pull energy Abel generates when deciding whether to dip ethically or stand firm. Isaac, while his resemblance to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone seems intentional, plays a capitalist who isn’t ruthless. Fascinating to watch as Abel navigates a moral thicket. Isaac is also effective as an anti-Llewyn Davis, a type liked even by adversaries. He can scarily explode, too

Chastain does well as a brassy moll and proud wife. Albert Brooks plays it straight as Abel’s lawyer, and Giovanni Ribisi is a mobster rival who, in a nugget scene, tries to dissuade Abel from borrowing money from people like him.


A Most Violent Year

three and a half stars

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo

Written and directed by: J.C. Chandor

Rated R

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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Anita Katz

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