A Most Violent Year (2014) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 125 min.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Christopher Abbott
Director: J.C. Chandor
Screenplay: J.C. Chandor

Review published January 19, 2015

Set in New York in 1981 (its most violent year, naturally), Abel Morales (Isaac, The Two Faces of January) is an up-and-coming fuel distributor looking to close the deal on some prime property to give him easy access to oil shippers from anywhere.  He's trying to run a legit business, but one of his competitors appears to not like Abel's muscling in on their turf, and starts to hijack his fuel trucks. It's beginning to make his drivers very nervous, as well as Abel's wife, Anna (Chastain, Interstellar), who expects him to protect her and his family from harm.  However, with cops sniffing him out, his bank funders getting nervous, and a spouse whose mafia background has her itching to fight back, Abel finds it hard to stay upright, especially when his back is against the proverbial brick wall.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor (All is Lost, Margin Call) delivers another gem, quietly putting together a case that he deserves to be mentioned among the best filmmakers working today, crafting this throwback to the works of such 1970s and 1980s stalwarts as Sidney Lumet (whose classic Prince of the City had been released in the year this is set), Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola (Morales is conceived of as a burgeoning Michael Corleone).  It's not trying for outright thrills or suspense; it's a slow-burn of increasing intensity, keeping you biting your nails as its characters look like there's no way out of their situation without a massive shift, or perhaps some deaths.  The film's more contrived ending loses a good deal of the pressure-cooker tension that could turn a very good film to a great one, but it still emerges as a Top 20 of the year candidate through its commitment to characters, period, and well-researched plotline. 

In addition to Chandor's prowess as a creative force, A Most Violent Year benefits from strong performances, with Oscar Isaac turning in yet another quality brooding turn that will likely be overlooked by the masses who've yet to take notice of this most excellent actor.  Jessica Chastain has the flashier role, one for which she would receive a Golden Globe nomination, as a potential  'Lady MacBeth' type who is willing to get her hands dirty if she sees her husband isn't willing or able to do whatever's necessary to beat the underhanded elements out to crucify them at their own game, just like her father, who owned the company before being sent away to prison, did.  The two are believable as a married couple, who frequently test each other's patience, but who also protect one another without condition.  Kudos should also go to Albert Brooks (This is 40), as Abel's attorney and confidant, who has continued his transformation as one of the better dramatic character actors around, despite his many years as a comedian. David Oyelowo (Selma) is solid yet again in a small role as an ambitious district attorney looking to make a name for himself by cleaning up the industry of corruption.

A Most Violent Year is a cold, calculated thriller that continuously turns its vice grip until its characters are about to crush under the weight of the many sides pushing up pressure against them.  It's about a man who always seeks to do the right thing, but just what is the right thing?  Is it right by society's standards, God's standards, or just his own?  So long as you respect its throwback cinema leanings and don't expect big action sequences (though it does feature an exciting car and foot chase -- the shooting in real-life locales is commendable), this subtle-yet-simmering crime drama should find no problem delivering its payload.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo