Though this is the final weekend in January, a few "award-season" 2014 releases are still trickling into area theaters. For that we should be grateful, if only to spell us from The Boy Next Door and its January ilk. A Most Violent Year, directed by J.C. Chandor and starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, is a simmering crime drama set in 1981, New York City. It opens at select theaters Friday.
Abel Morales (Isaac) is a rags-to-riches entrepreneur in the home heating oil industry. He's surrounded by violence and corruption, but as his business grows, he's committed to running it honorably, bless his heart. Even at the outset, as he's entering into an ambitious deal to acquire a huge plot of waterfront land which will expedite his operations, he intends to produce the requisite funds by strictly legal means.
But he's got limited time, and circumstances are conspiring against him: An anonymous competitor is hijacking his oil trucks and beating his drivers half to death. Inspired by jealousy, his slimy business partners seem to be allied against him in collective subterfuge. The district attorney (played by Selma's David Oyelowo) is scrutinizing Abel's business dealings in an aggressive way. Meanwhile, his wife (Chastain) is losing patience — she knows from experience that it rarely pays to be aboveboard.
In national TV spots, the film is said to "echo" The Godfather and the great mob movies of the '70s. It's true you'll recognize the lineage, at least visually: the shadowy white-tablecloth restaurants; the wide-breasted camel hair jackets; the bleak terrain of New York and New Jersey's industrial infrastructure, more besmirched than ever by the crime and porn and garbage of 1981. The atmosphere and tone in the film are both spot on.
The pace, however, requires some patience. It's what you might call a slow burn. Ironically, for a movie called "A Most Violent Year," there's not much "violence" on screen. It relies on the brooding performance of Oscar Isaac to carry you from scene to scene. And he does — there's way more internal violence than external. So don't expect gunfights and exotic torture scenarios every 15 minutes.
What's encouraging is that Chandor is a writer-director who makes films with arguments. His two prior films, Margin Call and All is Lost, were both powerfully recognizable as the products of a vision. A Most Violent Year is as well. With its whip-smart script, an explosive third act, and a statement performance from Isaac, it's additional evidence that Chandor is one of the best and most adventurous auteurs working in Hollywood today.
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