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Review: A Most Violent Year 

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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

***1/2

DIRECTED BY J.C. Chandor

STARS Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

One of the best films of 2014 – and, it should be noted, the best film of 2014 not to receive a single Oscar nomination (at least the National Board of Review picked up the Academy’s slack by naming it Best Picture) – A Most Violent Year takes us back to 1981, when New York City was experiencing one of the most crime-riddled years in its often brutal history.

Yet those ample instances of robbery, rape and murder are almost nowhere to be seen in this picture, the third from writer-director J.C. Chandor (following 2011’s Margin Call and 2013’s All Is Lost). Instead, the violence is unleashed in more subtle ways, and it’s one man’s sizable piece of the American Dream that ends up getting mercilessly pillaged and plundered.

The man is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who began small and now controls his own oil-heating company. With the support of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), Abel is ready to expand, an empire-building lunge that threatens to fall short thanks to a series of misfortunes. One of his rivals in the oil-heating business (who knew it was such a cutthroat racket?) has been hiring thugs to beat up his drivers.

A zealous district attorney (David Oyelowo, Selma’s MLK) is determined to uncover corruption in Abel’s organization, even, it seems, if none exists. And practically everyone, including his tough-as-nails wife (the daughter of a prominent gangster, no less) is urging him to resort to violence to save his business, especially by allowing his drivers to carry firearms.

But Abel Morales is an intriguing man who marches to his own beat, and he’s someone not open to easy analysis. Like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather – when he was still young, bright and idealistic, not old, weary and wary – he acknowledges that he lives in a dirty world but nevertheless wants to keep his hands clean by subscribing to a rigid moral code that won’t allow him to take the easy way out.

But the more Abel struggles to maintain a degree of honor, the more he feels the walls closing in around him. Isaac, previously seen to great effect in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is equally compelling here, portraying a character so careful in his thoughts, words and deeds that you can practically see the mental wheels turning as he examines any given scenario and enunciates his measured response.

Starting with that misleading title, A Most Violent Year is a movie in which nothing unfolds as expected. It’s a talky drama made for grown-ups (a radical concept, I know!), but that doesn’t mean Chandor isn’t above interrupting the lengthy discourses with a burst of kinetic action, including a pair of foot chases that don’t convey the expected excitement but rather illustrate the sheer exhaustiveness of such situations.

Most of the film operates in that same gritty fashion: With expert lensing by cinematographer Bradford Young -- who, incidentally, also shot Selma -- it remains on the prowl primarily through the city’s industrialized back streets (no milling Times Square crowds here), a serene, subdued style that, coupled with Chandor’s fatalistic script, provides for a viewing experience rife with tension and a mounting sense of dread. So does it all end with the celebratory pop of a champagne cork, or the fatalistic pop of a bullet to the head? It would betray my own moral code to answer that.

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