By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The “where” and “when” are New York City in the winter of 1981, when the rate of criminal violence was stratospheric.

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The “what” is described in the period drama’s title, A Most Violent Year.

 

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

As for the “who,” it was Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, originally from Colombia, who makes his living as a heating oil supplier and provides for his wife Anna (played by Jessica Chastain) and their two daughters, in chase of the proverbial American dream.

Which is why, when the film opens, Abel and his lawyer (Albert Brooks) are borrowing money so he can buy a new storage facility, one that will allow him to attract new clients and continue taking the high road.

Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds when you consider that his competitors are attacking his drivers and hijacking his trucks at gunpoint, and the assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) is asking to see the company books.  Both thrusts continue to combine into what feels like a vice tightening around Abel’s neck.

Anna, whose incarcerated father used to own the company and who sees Abel’s ethical behavior as a sign of weakness, is in charge of the books.  She keeps insinuating that Abel should strike back in some way, legal or otherwise, the way her late mob-boss father used to -– and, incidentally, the way Abel’s competitors do now.

“You’re not gonna like it once I get involved,” she hisses.

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But Abel wants to achieve his dream the slow way, the legal way, the nonviolent way.  Not that he’s a boy scout, mind you, but he’s not exactly surrounded by folks he can trust.

As were writer-director JC Chandor’s first two films (Margin Call, All is Lost), A Most Violent Year is an exercise in crisis management while the clock ticks.  But it’s also a morality tale that explores criminality and ponders whether or not an honest man can thrive in a corrupt world.

Thus does it recall some of the films of director Sidney Lumet, such as Serpico, Prince of the City, Night Falls on Manhattan, and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

Isaac is an interesting actor who is up to the task as a desperate businessman trying to stay afloat but keeping us guessing about his intentions.  But it’s the ubiquitous and formidable Chastain who most fascinates with her Lady Macbeth-like Anna, hovering over the movie even when she’s not on screen and threatening to explode and turn back into her father’s daughter whenever she is.

Chandor’s absorbing tale is deliberately paced, perhaps to a fault, and never quite builds to the climax it promises and deserves.  But its degree of understatement is admirable.

So we’ll heat 2½ stars out of 4.  Despite its warning of a title, the slow-burn crime drama A Most Violent Year is both thoughtful and thought-provoking enough to linger in the memory.

 

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