JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year finds our central character succeeding and struggling to achieve the American dream. It is a journey hampered by time, place, and competition. It is one helped by his own drive and tireless ambition and a genuine belief that he is always attempting to do the right thing.
That person is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) circa New York City 1981. He owns Standard Heating Oil Company and he’s already taken it from a small operation to a growing one. The time and place troubles he faces is a metropolis plagued by high crime rates. His trucks are frequently being hijacked. The competition troubles comes from his suspicions that his rivals are responsible. And that attempting to always do the right thing business doesn’t mean an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo) isn’t breathing down his neck.
Abel’s professional endeavors are assisted by two key individuals: his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his attorney (Albert Brooks) who seems to rarely give him good news. Anna is a fascinating character and Chastain’s performance only accentuates her. We are told she comes from a known family with a Brooklyn gangster father. We see flashes of ruthlessness in her that likely came from that upbringing. There are times when you wonder if Abel’s burgeoning yet troubled enterprise would run more smoothly (and probably with more bloodshed involved) if she were CEO.
We’ve seen plenty of crime dramas where our subject is a bad guy attempting to go good. Abel is more of a protagonist trying not to turn antagonist. Isaac is terrific. There are absolutely times where his acting reminds us of Pacino in the first Godfather. He’s a man surrounded by corruption, but with a moral compass that allows him to sleep at night.
For a movie called A Most Violent Year, we see little of it. A subplot involving one of Abel’s drivers (Elyes Gabel) provides some suspenseful and unexpected moments. There is thematically nothing very new here, but I welcomed this Sidney Lumet influenced character study and the first rate acting. Its early 80s NYC vibe doesn’t feel retro. More pleasingly, Year just feels like it could have made in 1981 when we would have watched it in old school VHS glory.
*** (out of four)