Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: J C Chandor

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Ashley Williams.

In 1981 New York was a city in decline, and statistically was regarded as one of the most violent years in its history, with both the crime and murder rate spiraling. This era of lawlessness forms the backdrop for this character driven piece about crime and corruption.

This is the third film from director J C Chandor, whose impressive filmography includes Margin Call, a look at the excesses of Wall Street and capitalism set against the backdrop of the financial crisis, and All Is Lost, in which Robert Redford played a lone hand as a solo sailor stranded at sea after his yacht took on water after a collision with a drifting cargo crate. A Most Violent Year is Chandor’s most thematically ambitious and boldest film to date, but it is also arguably his least accessible film. This is an epic Godfather-like tale of corruption, power, violence and family.

Abel Morales (a subtle, nuanced performance from Oscar Isaac from Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, etc) is an immigrant businessman pursuing the American Dream. He operates Standard Heating Oil, a small trucking business carting heating fuel he has taken over from his father. He has grand expansion plans and has laid down a deposit on an old industrial site near the port, a prime location that will ensure his company’s future. He has thirty days to pay the rest of the money or he loses the site. His crooked lawyer (a nicely sleazy Albert Brooks) worries about the deal.

But then his drivers are being beaten and his trucks hijacked, and his financial backers grow nervous and withdraw their support. Is it the work or competitors, or criminal gangs? Morales would prefer to ride the storm out rather than resort to violence in retaliation. There is a touch of violence and suspense in the subplot involving Julian (British actor Elyes Gabel, from World War Z, etc), one of Abel’s drivers who becomes the victim of a hijacking and a vicious beating, and whose decision to protect himself has far reaching ramifications.

Morales approaches the ambitious DA (played by David Oyelowo, so good as Martin Luther King in Selma), but rather than finding help, he finds himself suspected of corruption and the target of an investigation. Morales is an honourable man who tries to remain true to his strong moral code and sense of ethics while his world threatens to collapse around him. And what role does his Armani-wearing wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) play in these events? Anna controls the company’s books, but she also has links to the more dangerous underworld, and she takes decisive actions that her husband is unaware of.

Chandor sparingly gives out details about his flawed characters, leaving it up to his cast to fill in the blanks and add flesh and blood details. Isaac’s composed and measured, restrained performance as the brooding Morales is reminiscent of the younger Al Pacino. There is also a palpable chemistry between Isaac and Chastain that makes their relationship more dynamic and ambiguous.

A Most Violent Year delves into some murky, morally ambiguous territory. Chandor effectively captures the moral and physical decay of this once great city, and the period detail reeks of authenticity. He suffuses the film with gritty look and tone of some of those tough 70s classics directed by the likes of Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, and even the recent dramas of James Gray (The Yards, etc).

And through effective use of the muted colour palette and natural lighting and by shooting on anamorphic lenses cinematographer Bradford Young gives the film an authentic, gritty 80s feel. Chandor and Young also work with long steady takes that help underscore the tension of certain scenes. His direction is understated, and he suffuses the film with a nicely veiled air of menace. However with its languid pace, intelligent and meaningful dialogue, and generally bleak and oppressive tone, A Most Violent Year is a slow burn crime drama that will not appeal to everyone.



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