With his third feature film, writer-director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”) tells the captivating tale of an immigrant striving for the American Dream amid citywide corruption in “A Most Violent Year,” a crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo.
An absorbing look into the seedy underbelly of a crime-ridden city with towering performances from Isaac and Chastain, “A Most Violent Year” marks Chandor’s best film to date and has a strong chance landing nominations for direction, original screenplay, cinematography and the two leads. Commercially, the only things holding it back are its bleak outlook and the fact that it arrives in theaters at the tail-end of a season filled with serious-minded dramas. Still, it’s an epic and masterfully executed work that announces Chandor’s emergence as one of the boldest filmmakers of his generation.
Set in 1981, one of New York’s most violent years on record, the film tells the rags-to-riches story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who, through determination, business acumen and family connections, becomes the proprietor of Standard Heating Oil, a small company looking to gain a foothold in the industry. The first step to expansion taken by Abel and his creative accountant wife (Jessica Chastain), is acquiring a property along the East River that will give them the edge on their competitors thanks to its location and sizable storage tanks. Abel makes a large down payment on the property, but puts his back against the wall in the process by agreeing to pay the remaining $1.5 million in just thirty days.
Unfortunately, the city’s widespread corruption extends to Abel’s line of work – his company trucks are constantly being hijacked and their contents sold to his rivals. Of course, this makes Abel’s ability to pay off the property owner all the more difficult. On top of this threat to his livelihood, Abel’s lawyer (Albert Brooks) has recently learned that the assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) is about to hit the company with a fourteen-count indictment for alleged illegal business practices. With charges hanging over his head and his company in jeopardy, Abel is desperate to uncover the culprit behind the robberies and reclaim his lost earnings, even if that means breaking his seemingly unwavering moral code.
With his previous two films, writer-director J.C. Chandor exhibited the strength of his storytelling by limiting the settings to confined spaces (the boardroom of an investment bank in “Margin Call” and a boat in “All Is Lost”), but his capacity for filmmaking on a grand scale is undeniable here. Calling to mind “The Godfather” and the work of Sidney Lumet, Chandor nails the grim atmosphere of a very specific time and place through the prism of one growing industry. Working with cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma”), Chandor gives the film a dark and gritty look that perfectly captures the urban decay of 1980’s New York, such that you can practically feel the city’s griminess in every frame. Adding to the gloomy texture is Alex Ebert’s ominous score, which has a haunting and noticeable presence throughout.
Although audiences may have been turned off by the ill-tempered title character he played in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and his stellar performance in “The Two Faces Of January” that went largely unseen, Oscar Isaac is definitely an actor on the rise. As Abel Morales, Isaac has the screen presence of a young Al Pacino, which is to say he’s frickin’ terrifying. With his immaculate suits and authoritative air, Isaac’s Morales doesn’t so much look at people, as use his eyes to penetrate their souls. Pity the man that falls under his gaze. As Abel’s wife and business partner, Jessica Chastain continues to prove her versatility in this morally murky role. Just look at the way this glamorous Brooklyn queen handles a dying deer on the side of the road and you’ll know all you need to about her character. Supporting players all bring their A-game, particularly David Oyelowo (“Selma”) as the assistant district attorney with political aspirations and Elyes Gabel (“World War Z”) as Abel’s beleaguered truck driver.
A thought-provoking examination of capitalism at its most heartless, “A Most Violent Year” may not leave you feeling warm and cuddly, but it’s an exceptional film that’s bound to heat up the Oscar race.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated R for language and some violence