*** out of ****
J.C. Chandor’s third feature film continues this auteur’s interest in characters on a downward spiral. Margin Call dealt with workers in an investment bank during the 2008 economic crisis. All Is Lost featured a man on a sinking boat with no help in sight. Now, A Most Violent Year is about a businessman in a corrupt society, trying to find success on a righteous path, but is being challenged by violence.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a promising New York heating oil company owner in the midst of a big riverfront property score. Unfortunately, an industry-wide investigation is underway from the Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo), targeting Morales’ up-and-coming business. To make matters worse, he is under the attack of unknown gangsters, regularly hijacking his oil trucks.
Chandor seduces us into the film, slowly revealing who our main characters are, what they do -and mostly, what they want. It’s set in 1981, (the year of my birth) which was considered to be one New York’s most violent years in history, and the setting is realized very well. Considering how often the Manhattan skyline is featured nonchalantly in the background, it’s remarkable what a good job the effects team did to bring back the city’s older appearance.
As we get to know Abel and his bookkeeper wife Anna, played beautifully by Jessica Chastain, we start to wonder what force is intruding on their business and eventually, their lives. Abel looks to others, including a longtime attorney (Albert Brooks) with shady connections and a competitor (Alessandro Nivola) for some idea as to why he’s being ripped-off and threatened but no one knows. Temptations to take illegal risks become stronger. Everyone in his company, from a young immigrant truck driver to his wife, is more willing than he to go dark places to secure an independent future.
While Chandor tells a good story, the film’s dialogue leaves something to be desired. The matter-of-fact exposition leaves the characters without an important element of character. The movie also ends with a very heavy-handed climax of embarrassingly over-the-top melodrama that really brought it down a step.
I still have to applaud its slow-building tension, which climaxes with a chase scene during the last act of the film that harkens back to the gritty daylight pursuit among urban decay, seen in The French Connection.
Chandor has a vision and it is mostly realized in this film. The only thing that prevents it from being great is its lack of range in all the different ways people can communicate in a movie. His actors do great work to emote the blueprint-like script, but the characters don’t match the dark beauty of the film's atmosphere.