In New York City, 1981 (the most violent year in the city's history), an ambitious immigrant, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), with the unfailing support of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), is dead set on getting his share of the American Dream and tries to get in the oil business by buying an ideally located refinery. Morales soon faces the harsh reality of a society rampant with violence, decay, and corruption, where everyone wants to see him fall. He will have to fight to protect their business and family.


Throwback crime saga shoots for cerebral pleasures.

A Most Violent Year is a movie about a good man in a bad business. Or it might be about a flawed man who desires to be good. But making money here is a dirty game so we understand his tragedy is that he’s destined to fail in that last ambition. Then again, it could be a portrait of a bad man who is living a delusion of virtue.

The individual in question is Abel Morales (Oscar Issac), an enigmatic Latino entrepreneur, and if it isn’t obvious already, we’re kept guessing throughout as to the actual state of his soul. Think of this riveting but oddly muted drama as an incomplete audit on Abel’s true nature and character. He started off as a humble truck driver shipping heating oil to the New York ‘burbs. He ended up marrying the boss’ daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), before taking over the company, and he thinks style—like his precise diction and magnificent camel hair coat—is a path to righteousness.

This third feature from writer-director J.C. Chandor has a lot on its mind. In a cinema of dead-head stories that feel mass-produced rather than hand-made, A Most Violent Year’s seriousness and strong personality is to be respected at the very least. It has the shape of an old-fashioned taut, tough crime movie. It even has the classic suspense mechanism, a time factor. Chandor combines this with a film noir trope I’ve always loved, where the hero is trapped, paranoid, and beset on all sides by unseen enemies. So here Abel must spend the movie running about begging, bullying, and charming friend and foe alike in order to discover who’s out to do him in. A proud self-made man, Abel hates nothing more than to ask for help from people who he feels he left behind long ago.

The movie opens in 1981, the year where crime in New York peaked. Abel and Anna are putting down a deposit on an East River fuel depot. Once operational, this expansion will put them ahead of their competitors. Abel and co. have only 30 days to seal the deal. Jeopardising the plan is a turf war, an investigation into corrupt practices in the heating oil business, trouble with the union, and a dogged DA who is out to indict Abel, who has the reputation as a clean skin amongst the cabal of sub-Mafia types that make up his competitors. It turns out that Anna and lawyer Andrew (a superb Albert Brooks) have been cooking the books, compromising Abel’s integrity and wounding his pride.

This sounds exciting, but don’t imagine a conventional crime melodrama. Its pleasures I found to be cerebral rather than kinetic and visceral. The pace is a slow burn rather than the strutting force of a crime thriller. That’s because Chandor prefers talk and ideas to action; he’s a doggedly literary director, with a taste for dialogue that sounds more like the stage than the street: “You will never do anything harder,” Abel assures his new sales team in training, “than look someone in the eye and tell the truth.” In case you missed it, that’s ironic. And Chandor fills the movie up with this stuff.

Even Bradford Young’s cinematography—which smears everything in a poo-brown and white palette—exists within a camera technique that favours faces and precisely composed frames and little movement. I think it’s intended to underline how Abel earned his nouveau riche status by getting his hands dirty in a place that looks like a sewer. But this is a coffee table aesthetic. It’s all very beautiful, but it’s as subtle as an oil slick. Besides, I don’t think Chandor knows the grot, anger and sex of this world, or even cares to. Critics have been quick to compare this to Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) or Serpico (1973), but that’s wishful thinking. A Most Violent Year, despite a couple of excellent slam-bang chase set pieces, has none of the gleeful bustling energy of Lumet or James Gray, who worked similar territory in The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007).

In Margin Call (2011) and All in Lost (2013), Chandor demonstrated his interest in grand metaphors and tight little encoded worlds. The same framework applies here, where survival is reduced to a question of ethics. Crime movies from Scarface (1931) to The Godfather (1972) are about, in part, the left-hand of capitalism where the bad guys use all possible means to transform themselves so than can pass for legit and their cruel truth has resonance in the world of square heads: everyone gets rich at someone else’s expense. Chandor is working in this tradition. Trouble is, he’s a dry, earnest and academic filmmaker who reduces craft to where any poetry (or even fun) is junked in the service of point making. A Most Violent Year is the movie equivalent of a Harvard Business School primer on the moral hazards of the upwardly mobile small businessman.

But then on a certain superficial level, I like this movie a lot more than this cranky review suggests; I wanted to see how the story made out and I enjoyed the ferocity of the subplot about Julian (Elyes Gabel), a Spanish driver, a victim of Abel’s enemies, which is pure genre boilerplate. Issac, who has been cruelly compared to Al Pacino, here is terrific at playing the mystery in Chandor’s conceit. Chastain is good, too, as the kind of wife who casts doubt on Abel’s machismo while demonstrating political expediency by putting road kill out of its misery with a bullet in the head. Chandor doesn’t scale his scenes so that his supporting characters have something else going on besides their role in the plot, but Alessandro Nivola offers humour as a friendly competitor, and David Oyelowo’s DA has a cool anger like nothing else here. Still, the best clue to the truth of who Abel really is comes when he orders a sit down with his rivals. They meet his entreaties of sympathy and peace with a look like he’s kidding himself. To these crooks, Abel is the blue in the toilet bowl.

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2 hours 5 min
In Cinemas 26 February 2015,