★★★½ out of four stars
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) wants to be a real American man. When we meet him, he’s striving to fulfill the dreams of many immigrant Latinos, speaking his New York City English with flawless intelligence and emotional restraint, trying hard to outpace anyone he regards as a business rival to his profitable Standard Heating Oil Co., and to protect anyone he considers a colleague.
Yet the municipal offices, homes and courtrooms he visits look ominous and fateful. His beautiful wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who manages Standard’s books, is the daughter of a Brooklyn mob kingpin. Morales’ truck drivers are being hijacked, his door-to-door men beaten on sales calls. His drivers’ union leader warns that unless they’re given unlicensed handguns for protection, they’ll walk out. He’s being ceaselessly investigated by an ambitious prosecutor (David Oyelowo).
The handsomely coiffed, elegantly dressed, solemnly spoken entrepreneur is learning that success is the most perishable item known to man.
“A Most Violent Year” is set in 1981, the first chapter in a Big Apple murder surge that pushed a full decade into the future. The cool thriller’s writer/director, J.C. Chandor, uses the jaundiced past of a crumbling city to critique the present. His film is a guide to dark inner realms. The hazardous materials Abel and his competitors truck across the five boroughs are less dangerous than the malevolent effects of commercialism and greed.
Chandor launched his feature career with a Wall Street financial collapse in “Margin Call,” then showed a solitary seaman navigating troubled depths in “All Is Lost.” Here he presents an even deeper study of angst, anxiety and paranoia.
Cinematographer Bradford Young mirrors the dark and dirty urban aesthetic of Gordon Willis, genius cameraman of “The Godfather” and “The Conversation.” Wide frames hold the actors in dim bareness that makes you worry what could cross the emptiness and threaten them. Chandor follows the psychologically penetrating tradition of Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula and Francis Ford Coppola, observing crime as a microcosm of society. It’s a loving salute to auteurs who had admirable careers before their industry took an ugly 1980s turn, leaving the good-drama business for the boredom-killing business.
As the fundamentally decent Abel, Isaac is breathtaking. He looks like the young, primly dressed early Al Pacino. He also nails Pacino’s skill of acting judicious even against resentful competitors, until things become eruptive. He’s shockingly good in a tense car chase with a stolen Standard truck that takes him through a pitch black abandoned subway tunnel that could be hell’s main entrance. In scene after scene, surrounding corruption attacks.
Even his marriage to Anna tests his ethics. In a highway scene involving a wounded deer, each of them tries to end its suffering, one with a tool, the other with a shocking weapon. Chastain plays Anna as a seductive, self-righteous Lady Macbeth with a purse-sized pistol, one of the toughest female characters in ages. Their relationship is a nonstop wrestling match. By the time Abel becomes a real American man, he is in control, but inside is a frightened child. It’s not the destination he once imagined.