Film review: A Most Violent Year

David Gritten / 23 January 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten is full of praise for A Most Violent Year, a pulsating drama set in 80s New York City.

We’re at that stage of the film year where all the gossip and chatter is about which films will win big at the Oscars or Baftas, and the list has been whittled down to half a dozen or so. Absent from this list is A Most Violent Year, a superb, tense drama set in New York in 1981, which has been curiously overlooked. It’s a satisfying movie, brilliantly acted with confident direction - a reminder of an era when films seemed more solid, sturdy and generally better thought-through than they do now. 

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) stars as Abel, a Hispanic immigrant businessman, already wealthy and trying to expand his business as a supplier of domestic fuel. He needs a terminal and puts down a deposit on a Brooklyn waterfront property, with the 30 days to find the outstanding money.

As Abel, Isaac is a suave, neat, arrogantly handsome man who looks for all the world like a successful mobster. (It’s impossible not to look at Isaac in this film and think of Al Pacino as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone.) In fact Abel has a strict of code of honour, but in his business, crooks are thick on the ground in rival companies. One of his delivery trucks is hijacked and its driver is beaten up; one night Abel finds an armed intruder skulking outside his expensive house.

It doesn’t help that a district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating crime in the oil-supply industry and assumes Abel is no better than his other suspects. Nor does it help that Abel’s tough-minded wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is herself the daughter of a Mob family. She offers to enlist her family’s help; Abel insists against it. Yet how will he stay afloat?

Abel, then, is a man in crisis – as were the lead characters in the two previous films by writer-director J.C. Chandor: in Margin Call, Kevin Spacey played a Wall Street investment banker racing against time to save his firm from going under. In All Is Lost, Robert Redford was a lone sailor, becalmed miles from anywhere aboard a gradually sinking vessel. 

A Most Violent Year confirms Chandor’s remarkable talents and is firmly in the class of its predecessors. It has the feel of gritty New York-set films from the era it depicts – something by the great Sidney Lumet - like Serpico, perhaps, or Dog Day Afternoon
 As for Isaac and Chastain, they are terrific together, and both these versatile actors add another string to their bow. A Most Violent Year is proper grown-up entertainment: a story of clear moral choices, and the perils involved in making them.

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