It's 1981 and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewyn Davis") is on the verge of making the biggest deal of his career acquiring a waterfront warehouse in New York City. But even though Morales is all about fair business practices, he's regarded with suspicion by the D.A. (David Oyelowo, "Selma"), his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, "Interstellar"), is the daughter of a prominent mobster, and his competitors are out to destroy him by threatening his heating oil delivery drivers and stealing his product in "A Most Violent Year."
After his almost wordless sea survival tale "All Is Lost," writer/director J.C. Chandor returns to the harsh realities of the corruption of the American Dream he explored in his first film, "Margin Call." But while that film dealt with recent Wall Street history, here Chandor goes back a few decades to tell a tale of a family man with echoes of "The Godfather's" Michael Corleone. With his popped collar cashmere camel coat and slicked back black hair, Oscar Isaac looks like the Puerto Rican Pacino, but where Pacino runs hot, Isaac plays it cool and collected.
That isn't to say the actor doesn't portray inward seething. With three days to come up with the second half of his property payment, Morales's bank reluctantly pulls its backing after the D.A. brings charges against him for cooking his books and one of his drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel, "Interstellar"), returns fire at hijackers on a traffic-jammed 59th Street bridge. Anna, an icy looking blond with long talons and a temper to match, begins to go back through her accounting records while hat in hand, Abel is forced to seek financial help from the very business colleagues who may be robbing him.
Chandor steeps his film in a very specific time and place, alternating among the grungy industrial work places of home heating oil companies, the old school establishments their owners frequent, the working class homes of their clients and the extravagant modern abodes they've built with their profits. Cinematography Bradford Young ("Selma") coats the film in a sickly yellow hue reminiscent of movies of the period. Although the film features shoot outs and chases, Chandor favors the slow burn, following his protagonist on his righteous crusade as obstacles known and unknown threaten his success. We learn about Morales's (as in moral) character through several revealing scenes - his business acumen from the speech he gives to new sales recruits, his backbone in standing up to the union rep who wants to arm his men, his loyalty in the way he handles Julian. The Morales marriage is one of equal partnership and contrasting style - where he is cool and polite, she's all piss and vinegar, a Noo Yawk accented Armani clad Lady MacBeth. Driving home from a business dinner one evening, a deer darts in front of them and it's Anna who pulls out a snub nosed revolver (that he didn't know she had) and dispatches the injured animal. Isaac is great as a decent man trying to hold his ground on quicksand, but Chastain's absolutely fierce. The film also stars Albert Brooks ("Drive") as Morales's lawyer and David Margulies ("Fading Gigolo") and Alessandro Nivola ("Selma") as old and new world representatives of the heating oil industry.
"A Most Violent Year" harkens back to the solid, character driven dramas studios used to produce in decades past. Sidney Lumet would have love this movie.
Robin gives "A Most Violent Year" a B.
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