The crime drama A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, reportedly the worst year for crime in New York City. Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) offers a film stylistically reminiscent of Sidney Lumet, whose great Prince of the City was released in 1981. The performance of star Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) made me think of Al Pacino in his Godfather days. Isaac plays a corrupt business owner who considers himself a highly ethical man. The world may be dirty, but he is determined to be an example of how a gentleman conducts himself.
The film is easy to admire. Chandor slowly ratchets up the pressure on his central characters. He does a fine job recreating the period, along with the gritty tone associated with crime films from those days. There is enough action to balance out the slow-build narrative, including a knockout chase scene that starts in a car, then proceeds by foot through the streets, onto an elevated B train, and back to the ground again. It doesn't feel like an orchestrated set piece; it feels like the real thing.
Abel Morales (Isaac) is a former truck driver for a heating oil company who married the boss's daughter. Anna (Jessica Chastain) has no problem with her mobster pappy. Abel is determined to steer clear of all that and she goes along with him, while cooking the books for her righteous spouse.
A turf war is raging between the area oil companies. Abel's drivers — and later one of his sales reps — are getting assaulted on the job. They want to start carrying guns, but Abel says no, even after an armed prowler comes to his home late one night. The aggrieved businessman has secured financing to purchase an abandoned waterfront fuel yard. Owning the facility will put him in a power position within the market.
Then he learns that the Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma) has been investigating the heating oil business and is about to indict him. Banks don't like being seen financing businessman under indictment. Alternate funds must be found before the time limit on the deal expires. And the tension keeps growing.
The impressive cast includes Albert Brooks — playing it serious and looking like a different person with straight hair — as Abel's lawyer and friend. And Julian, a company truck driver whose life goes to hell after he is robbed and beaten, is played by Elyes Gabel of the TV series Scorpion.
With its great cast and solid premise, A Most Violent Year sounds like a mainstream hit waiting to happen, but I suspect the film will go over best with art house viewers. While the story is fascinating, there are certain problems that keep it emotionally distant. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are outstanding, but the screenplay doesn't fully do their characters justice. Abel is so focused on becoming the immigrant's son that made it to the top that we never get a good look at the human being beneath the veneer.
Anna is written as such a tough cookie that it's hard to see her soul either. We never see Abel and Anna as a loving couple. We see Abel coiled into himself and Anna telling him to stop being a pussy. Certainly they are loyal to each other, but I needed to see the passion that fused them. A Most Violent Year is very good, but it could have been devastating.