A Most Violent Year

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A hard boiled saga of capitalism, crime and family cira 1981 New York City, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a high-order throwback to Sidney Lumet’s social urban dramas of the 70s, a sensationally written and directed movie about a beleaguered businessman (Oscar Isaac) trying to get a leg up in the heating oil business while fending off cutthroat competitors who will stop at nothing to take him down, or worse.

It’s about capitalism and what it takes to succeed, and about deception in both business and between a husband and wife (Jessica Chastain) in a pressure cooker of money, organized crime and family obligations.  It’s a hell of a movie, with a hellcat performance from Chastain as the woman behind the man, an icy mobster’s daughter who cooks the books, wears the pants and knows her way around a revolver.  It’s also a pungent period piece that captures New York of three decades ago, and a thematically dense rumination on the price of tenacity and subsequent failure.

Isaac is terrific (and resembles Al Pacino) as self-made immigrant Abel Morales, the stand-up proprietor working hard to stay clean and expand his business with the help of right-hand-man and morally flexible attorney Albert Brooks. Chandor opens the story with a potential, high-stakes business deal that will give him a leg up on his competitors, a real estate transaction the capitalizing of which drives the rest of the picture.

But there’s a big catch when one of Abel’s younger drivers (the magnetic Elyes Gabel) is hijacked and beaten.  Who is behind it?  When it happens again, and Abel’s family is threatened by a masked gunman who breaks into their home, tensions flare between Abel and wife Anna (Chastain), equally concerned about protecting their daughters as about holding onto their turf, and as even-tempered as Abel is, Anna is a reactive firecracker with a pistol in her Armani handbag.

With a month to raise the capital to seal the transaction and additional hijackings underway, Abel is also under investigation by a straight-arrow D.A. (David Oyelowo), who is certain that the company’s books are off, and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, accountant Anna intimates the price he will pay for rookie investigative invasiveness.

Complicating matters in this cutthroat milieu, the oil truck drivers insist on carrying firearms for protection—illegal ones—threatening the integrity of the whole operation.  And then there’s Anna, who to Abel’s surprise dispatches a wounded deer with her personal revolver and, in Lady Macbeth fashion, wants Draconian comeuppance for their rivals.

Chastain, perfectly capturing the dolled-up, new money Anna while channeling Scarface’s Michelle Pfeiffer, cuts a stylish, imposing figure here, one not afraid to level threats at Oyelowo’s D.A. for interrupting her daughter’s birthday party during a search-and-seizure operation. She’s tough as nails, and the actress, the best of her generation, commands every scene she’s in, including the emotionally intense showdowns between husband and wife, who in the end don’t know as much about each other as thought.

Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) also stages one of the best sustained chase sequences in memory as Abel pursues one of his stolen trucks and its driver through the tunnels of Manhattan’s old Atlantic Yards terminal, a suspenseful set-piece expertly utilizing light and darkness, grittily shot by ace DP Bradford Young (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Middle of Nowhere), who gives us a not-yet-cleaned-up New York that is dark, dangerous and grimy.

A Most Violent Year ultimately asks if capitalism is possible, even for the best, without a degree of corruption, and the movie eviscerates the idea of the American Dream as the payoff of hard work.

Most highly recommended.

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