*** and 1/2 out of ****
A Most Violent Year received a limited release in late December in the hopes of securing some Oscar nominations, but didn’t get any. And that’s a shame, because it’s an excellent, understated film.
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, Margin Call), the movie tells the story of Abel Morales (the terrific Oscar Isaac), a heating oil magnate in 1981 New York City. On paper, that doesn’t sound like the most fascinating setup, but Morales is a man walking a tightrope. His trucks are being hijacked (the city’s in the middle of a yearlong crime wave). His drivers are fed up and want to start carrying guns. However, this would be illegal and attract further attention from a crusading D.A. (Selma’s David Oyelowo), who seeks to make his name by cleaning up the industry. Lastly, Isaac is relying on a $1.5 million loan from the bank so he can buy a new storage facility that will give him a leg up on his competitors (one or more of whom might be behind the highjackings).
Despite having very little onscreen violence, A Most Violent Year is as tense as any thriller. Isaac wants to succeed in business without compromising his integrity, but he’s learning that survival might require moral flexibility. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is a gangster’s daughter and warns him that he must resolve their problems, or she’ll get her family involved.
Chandor’s script wisely avoids easy answers. Isaac is neither a noble hero, nor is his journey the standard tragic one where a previously noble character becomes what he despises. The movie’s more nuanced than that.
A Most Violent Year may have been shut out in Oscar nominations, but time will be kind to it.