A Most Violent Year is a most fascinating film

by Mark Burger

Filmmaker J.C. Chandor scored an Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay) with his excellent 2011 debut, Margin Call, then gave Robert Redford one of his best recent roles in All is Lost (2013). His third feature, A Most Violent Year, is a potent morality tale focusing on the home-oil industry in early ’80s New York City and the attempts of ambitious Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) to establish his position of power in the business, which, make no mistake, is a racket in every sense of the term.

There’s a singular lack of flashiness to the proceedings, and despite its title, the film’s violent incidents occur suddenly and unexpectedly “” and end just as quickly, with a chilling finality more in line with realism than bloodshed and pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, there’s considerable suspense generated throughout, and a daylight car chase is undoubtedly a highlight.

In a role that at various times might have been played by Al Pacino, Armand Assante or Andy Garcia, Isaac brings the same sort of controlled yet intense charisma that hints at the roiling emotions underneath. It’s yet another impressive performance for the talented young actor. It’s interesting to note that Javier Bardem was originally slated to play the role, but it hardly matters given Isaac’s work.

Equally impressive, once again, is Jessica Chastain, here playing Abel’s wife Anna, the mother of his children and very much a partner in his endeavor. Anna’s own father was “in” the business, thus she has a shrewd insight into its realities, rewards “” and hazards. There’s a slight Macbeth tint to their on-screen relationship, which is another indication of the nuance and symbolism that are fast becoming a Chandor trademark.

There’s also a coolness and an emotional detachment here, one that has been favorably, and deservedly, compared to the films of Sidney Lumet but which might frustrate some audiences expecting something else “” and, admittedly, something less, like your standard-issue mob-movie shoot-’em-up. A Most Violent Year is steeped in mood, courtesy Bradford Young’s first-rate cinematography, yet it’s a film in which characters suppress their emotions, lest they be perceived as weak or vulnerable.

David Oyelowo, so impressive as MLK in the recent Selma, is in good form as an assistant DA whose own ambitions “” to prosecute Abel and those in his line of work “” are in danger of being compromised, and Albert Brooks (sporting a wicked comb-over) plays Abel’s most trusted adviser and a voice of reason, his moral, or amoral, compass, as it were. A Most Violent Year is a fine piece of work all around and one of 2014’s best films. With three successes to his credit, one can only wonder with anticipation what Chandor’s next endeavor will be.

A Most Violent Year opens Friday.