Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales
Directed by J.C. Chandor
It’s 1981 and thriving business owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is trying to expand his heating oil company by buying an enormous storage depot. But he’s facing a ton of obstacles, including an investigation into financial wrong-doings and his trucks being hijacked and stolen by the competition forcing him to make the tough decision on whether to arm his drivers.
New York City has been the setting for many decent films over the last few years, but that’s not the same thing as being a really solid New York movie, the kind that doesn’t feel like it could be set anywhere else. While the likes of Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese have staked their claim on the town, it may not be too surprising to see Margin Call’s J.C. Chandor exploring the New York immigrant experience in a contrasting way to James Gray’s recent The Immigrant. After all, Chandor has become one of the more interesting new filmmakers working today, his two previous films creating a foundation of what should be a long and diverse career.
Despite its deceptive title, A Most Violent Year continues that run with a crime flick (of sorts) set in New York’s competitive heating oil business. It may not sound like a particularly interesting subject matter for a movie, but Chandor knows what he’s doing and he explores this world with the same vigor as he did the stock exchange in his earlier film.
What’s clear from the get-go is that he has a solid central character in Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, a Cuban immigrant who has worked his way up from nothing to build his oil business, marrying into wealth along the way in the form of Jessica Chastain’s Anna, who comes from a questionable background.
In the opening montage, we watch Morales jogging on a cold day unaware that one of his oil trucks has been ambushed and stolen, leaving the driver seriously injured. That event becomes the stimulus for what’s becoming a much more competitive business, but Abel is more bothered when a man tries to sneak into the luxurious new home in which he just moved with his family. As this is going on, Abel is in the process of trying to buy a huge storage plant that will make him even more successful, a business venture that’s being hindered by the loss of oil from stolen trucks and an inquiry into his company’s business practices. Abel is getting pressure from all sides, as everyone tries to advise him, but the most important thing for him is to protect his drivers from the truck hijacks.
Chandor unveils this story at a slow and purposeful pace creating a very specific tone with another fantastic script that almost needs to be so dialogue-heavy in order to bring more weight to Abel’s situation. Because of this, the movie requires the viewer’s complete focus to keep on top of its subtleties. Despite the title, this isn’t a particularly violent movie compared to other films set in the world of New York crime, but it’s also not all talking. Things really start to pick up with a Godfather-style montage as two of Abel’s employees are hit by his competition, leading to a highway shoot-out and Abel taking a more active role in finding those responsible. From that point, some of the focus shifts to Julian, the oil truck driver attacked earlier in the film, and deals with his growing problems and how that might impact Abel’s impending business deal.
Like the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is another great showcase for the talents of Oscar Isaac in which we follow his character from one encounter to the next. It’s a lazy but fair comparison to suggest that Isaac is reminiscent of a young Pacino with the presence he emits from the screen. That presence is counter-balanced by an equally astounding performance by Jessica Chastain, who at times looks and sounds like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface. Anna is tough and takes no bull, something we see a few times during the film, including a truly shocking moment that shows Anna’s true colors.
These two actors are absolutely electric when they’re on screen together delivering some of the film’s strongest moments. They’re surrounded by a fine supporting cast that includes Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and closest advisor and David Oyelowo as the head of the investigation against Abel, as well as others, but it’s really all about Isaac and Chastain.
A Most Violent Year is as much a portrait of New York during that particular moment in time as it is about Abel with Chandor’s cameras taking advantage of the grey mood of the city during the fall and winter. It also reteams with All is Lost composer Alex Ebert who channels Pink Floyd with an eerie ambient score that’s used fairly sparingly to help maintain the intended minimalist tone.
The Bottom Line:
If Margin Call was Chandor’s Wall Street and All is Lost was his Cast Away, then A Most Violent Year is his take on The Godfather or Scarface. Though it’s not quite as thrilling or memorable as those classics, it’s a striking portrait of a specific time and place and a man pressured into changing with the times.
A Most Violent Year is now playing in select cities and will expand nationwide sometime this month.