‘A Most Violent Year’: Taut crime drama

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Did you ever wonder about the inner workings of the home heating oil supply business? Did you ever imagine that this unglamorous world would provide the setting for a top-notch movie? Assuming that you haven’t, “A Most Violent Year” will come as a welcome surprise to you.

Statistics reflect that 1981 had the largest number of rapes and murders in the annals of New York City.  By placing the film on that year, writer/director, J.C. Chandor, infuses his film with the sense of urban paranoia that prevailed then.

In an opening scene, we witness a young oil truck driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), as he is brutally beaten, then booted out of his vehicle.  This portends a series of similar attacks. Each time, the delivery truck is hijacked, the oil is siphoned off, and the drained vehicle is then abandoned.

Julian’s boss, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), is a Latino immigrant. Immaculately coiffed and coutured, he has the bearing of a confident, successful businessman.

Now, Abel is taking a big gamble. Accompanied by his attorney, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), Abel meets with some Hasidic Jews. They’ve assembled to sign an agreement of sale on a waterfront property.

Brooks points out to Abel that he is paying a price, which is above the fair market value for the property. However, Abel counters that the location will give his company direct access to incoming oil tankers. He is convinced that this is a key strategic benefit that justifies the sale price.

Nevertheless, the agreement is an extremely risky gamble for Abel. He has to sink all of his cash into a deposit on the property. If he can’t come up with the balance of the sale price within thirty days, he will forfeit the deposit.

Abel has established a strong relationship with his bank. He is counting on securing a loan from them to come up with the outstanding balance.

As the hijackings continue, Abel seeks legal protection from District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo). However, the prosecutor rebuffs Abel’s entreaties. Instead, Lawrence announces that he is planning to indict Abel for some white collar crimes.

Once the bank learns of Abel’s prospective prosecution, they reject his loan application. Meanwhile, Abel’s trucks continue to be hijacked, further subverting his financial situation.

Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a mobster. Her father had founded the lucrative Standard Home Oil Company. Before his death, he sold it to Abel. Anna recognizes that one of their business rivals must be culpable for the hijackings.

Which one is it? What is Abel going to do to about it? As the thirty-day deadline approaches, the tension mounts.

This is J.C. Chandor’s third feature film. His debut, “Margin Call,” starred veteran thespian, Al Pacino, as a Wall Street stockbroker, who is confronted by a plunging market. His sophomore effort, “All is Lost,” provided Robert Redford with a late career, virtually dialogue-free role as a stranded yachtsman.

This time around, Chandor taps Oscar Isaac, a young, up and coming actor, who starred in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Is it a sheer coincidence that Isaac’s performance here recalls that of a young Al Pacino in his classic role as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”  Both characters projected a quiet intensity, coupled with a distaste for the thuggery around them.

The supporting cast is notably strong. Long-time funnyman, Albert Brooks, plays it totally straight for a change. He is quite effective as an attorney with mob connections and a jaundiced perspective. Similarly, Jessica Chastain portrays an atypical role. Her character is a brassy pragmatist. She is unencumbered by her husband’s ethical qualms about resorting to violence. Although David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King in “Selma”) has limited screen time, he adds an interesting dimension to the film.

J.C. Chandor continues to build a strong résumé, both as a screenwriter and director. As a result of his adroit work and excellent acting, “A Most Violent Year” is a dramatically compelling film.

“A Most Violent Year” *** ½ R (for language and some violence) 124 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year, He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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