A Most Violent Year (R) ★★★

Oscar Isaac and David Oyelowo star in "A Most Violent Year." Photo credit: A24.
Oscar Isaac and David Oyelowo star in “A Most Violent Year.” Photo Credit: A24.

A Gripping Tale About The Struggles of the American Dream

With his third feature film, writer-director J.C. Chandor continues to impress. His latest crime-drama, A Most Violent Year (preceded by Margin Call and All is Lost) is gritty and intense. While the title suggests another gruesome tale about American greed and violence, the audience will be pleasantly surprised in the direction the film takes on this theme.

The setting for the story is 1981 New York City, a year that saw the most murders the city has ever had and represents arguably the nadir in the city, which is captured very well in the filming and settings. Within this backdrop, the film follows the immigrant business owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) and his family as they attempt to expand their heating and oil business and capture their piece of the American Dream. The wealthy thirty-something Morales is on the verge of greatly expanding his operation as he buys a loading and storage dock near his property. The icing on the cake for the deal is that the dock is located on the East River, therefore allowing his company easy access to oil barges. The sellers accept a cash down payment and require the remainder of the payment, a million and a half dollars, to be paid in cash within 30 days. Morales must find a way to scrounge up the cash, or risk losing his down payment and the opportunity altogether.

This crime-drama’s solid pace, antique-like tones and dim lighting set the mood for the troubling times. In fact, eras aside, the look and feel was very much reminiscent of American Hustle (2013). The script is sharp, the score fitting and the acting superb. Isaac plays Morales with superb ease. Despite his business and family crumbling around him, he still manages to keep his head on his shoulders. Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, 2014), who plays Morales’ wife Anna, typically works for the ‘good guys’ in her films but switches gears a bit and plays a much darker, unpopular character. She’s a mom who’s trying to juggle her kids, defend her family name and support her husband. Chastain juggles like a pro.

Not only is Morales struggling to collect the cash, but he also faces stiff competition as he expands into these new markets. Rivals are hijacking his trucks, stealing his cargo, and his salesmen are being threatened, even beaten. The levelheaded and even keeled Morales also faces investigations into his business dealings from outside law enforcement, which further disrupts his business.

Despite threats from multiple angles, Morales insists on rising above the fray and not responding with violence or shady dealings. We quickly learn that Anna has family connections with the mob, which urges him to fight the bad guys back with whatever means he has available. As the clock is ticking on the deadline to save his business, Morales must choose how to deal with the threats directed toward both his business and his family. He must also ensure his employees and company align with his view on the business. A Most Violent Year is a disturbing look at the cost of doing business and the price you pay not only financially, but emotionally.

Bottom Line? While this crime-drama definitely has its share of violence, its gruesomeness certainly isn’t overbearing as the title suggests. A Most Violent Year proves that New York wasn’t always the place where dreams were made. Isaac and Chastain are superb in their roles and Chandor’s fantastic writing and direction prove that he’s just getting started.

Cast: Oscar Isaac (Abel Morales), Jessica Chastain (Anna Morales), David Oyelowo (Lawrence), Alessandro Nivola (Peter Forente), Albert Brooks (Andrew Walsh)

Credits: Directed and written by J.C. Chandor

Studio: A24

Run Time: 125 minutes

Jessica Aymond © January 2, 2015