A Most Violent Year Crime

Film Review: A Most Violent Year

January 30, 2015Ben MK

How to make it in America...

The year was 1972, and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather had moviegoers captivated with its tale about a power struggle within the ranks of an Italian-American crime family. Fast forward 43 years, and writer/director J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year finds itself treading in similar territory. Not that its main protagonist — played by Oscar Isaac — is a mafioso. However, both films can be viewed as being about immigrants pursuing the American dream, putting A Most Violent Year — set in 1981, a record year for crime in New York City — in some very good company.


Isaac stars as Abel Morales, a Columbian-born businessman out to make a name for himself in the Big Apple's ultra-competitive heating oil industry. Granted, that doesn't immediately sound like a premise that would lend itself well to a gripping crime drama. But when your wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of the mob boss from whom you purchased the company, your salesmen are being brutally beaten, and your transport trucks — each carrying roughly $6,000 worth of oil — are routinely being hijacked at gunpoint, you can begin to appreciate just how deceiving appearances can be.

In spite of all of this, Abel is keen on expanding his burgeoning empire, the key to which is a strategically-located waterfront industrial lot for which he — aided by his shrewd legal counsel, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) — has recently put a massive downpayment on. However, with $1.5 million still outstanding on the property, Abel soon encounters a series of snags and obstacles that threaten to derail his ambitions and destroy everything he's worked for.

One of the major thorns in Abel's side is a go-getter District Attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo), or more specifically, the ongoing investigation he's been conducting into Abel's company, Standard Heating Oil. Part of the government's sweeping efforts to clean up the industry as a whole, it's resulted in fourteen counts of indictment against Abel (including charges of corruption and tax evasion), sending Anna frantically sifting through box after box of old records to determine if there's any incriminating evidence against them.

Which brings us to Chastain's magnetic portrayal of Anna. Fierce, headstrong and quick to defend her family by whatever means necessary, Anna's anything but a stay-at-home housewife. In fact, she's often more of a force to be reckoned with than her husband. For whereas Abel struggles with the moral and ethical implications of his actions, Anna — being her father's daughter — has no such qualms.

When violence threatens the lives of their three children, and Abel vows to deal with it, Anna warns: "Oh, you better. You’re not going to like what'll happen once I get involved." Abel finds out just how much his wife means business during a later scene, in which the couple hit a deer with their car while traveling down a darkened highway. As the animal lays dying by the roadside, Anna urges him to put it out of its misery. And as he stands over it with a shovel, a moment of hesitation gives her cause to step in unannounced and fire several bullets point-blank into the wounded creature.

Don't let that mislead you, though. The movie's quota of action is surprisingly low, especially considering its title, something that may irk moviegoers who've formed their own preconceptions about the film based on its moniker alone. A riveting opening sequence, a tense daylight shootout and a couple of white-knuckle foot chases are essentially all that's offered up here, leaving the remainder of the 2-hour-plus running time to be occupied by brooding scenes of dialogue and steadily-paced exposition.

Still, it all proves thoroughly engrossing, thanks primarily to the enigmatic on-screen pairing that is Isaac and Chastain. For the most part, the script has their characters working in unison, but on occasion — such as when Abel confronts Anna over a purported act of betrayal — we see them at each other's throats, butting heads with impassioned fervor. Either way, their scenes together exude palpable chemistry, making for some intense drama. Throw in bit parts for actors like Alessandro Nivola and Elizabeth Marvel, as well as a subplot that doesn't end well for one of Abel's embattled truck drivers (Elyes Gabel), and the movie's dripping with it.

The Bottom Line With Margin Call, All is Lost and now A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor has quickly established himself as one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation. Not only is his latest film a compelling throwback to the crime dramas of a bygone era, it's a timeless allegory — a parable about the pursuit of the American dream, bolstered by intense performances and steeped in noir chic. The only caveat goes to those moviegoers looking for more action, who may be left wanting. Otherwise, A Most Violent Year is most entertaining indeed.  Ben Mk

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