A Most Violent Year

January, 2015, Drama

 A Most Violent Year

Four years ago, a young writer/director by the name of J.C. Chandor gave audiences a withering examination of Wall Street’s seedier side with an ensemble look at the operations of a “bucket shop”. Margin Call was made for a fraction of the cost of Scorsese’s subsequent effort, Wolf of Wall Street, bettering that bilious movie in every category. Two years later, Chandor’s All Is Lost provided Robert Redford yet another Oscar opportunity in his portrayal of an aging but stoic man facing solitary death on his sailboat. Now comes this precisely dated examination of a shady businessman set in New York City in 1981 starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Rich in period detail and blessed with a supporting cast including James Brooks and David Oyelowo, Chandor employs a melodramatic formula to deliver a stubbornly insistent portrait of a man doing “the next best thing” in an environment of systemic business corruption.

Abel Morales (Isaac) has taken over the Brooklyn-based heating oil business founded by the father of his wife Anna, a hard-bitten product of city’s propensity to drain much of the femininity from its nouveau-riche spouses. Abel’s success in growing this inherited business has allowed the couple to rapidly move up the economic scale but it’s also earned him the enmity of his competitors, who compete viciously with one another in an environment of wildly fluctuating demand, erratic supply and persistent poaching of customer bases.

In an atmosphere where tax evasion is a given among those carving up this pie, Abel insists he won’t succumb to the strong arm tactics others are using to cut into his profitability and ruin the planned acquisition of a crucial distribution facility that will make him an even more potent competitor.

Grimly shrugging off the beatings of his drivers, the theft of his trucks with their valuable loads and even personal threats against his family, Abel battles his adversaries, his own advisors and even Anna in his drive to complete the deal that will allow him to “go legit”. Using his gigolo-handsomeness, an elegantly expensive wardrobe and an unflinching refusal to descend to the tactics of those who oppose him, Abel’s cocky self-assurance combines with a gritty adherence to his self-imposed sense of honor. In doing so, he consistently overlooks the institutional crime of tax evasion and anything that would criminally retaliate against those who oppose his growing business success, even when an ethically ambiguous district attorney (Oyelowo) offers Abel immunity for his own misdeeds in exchange for giving evidence against his far more crooked adversaries.

After nearly 30 roles in his 18 years as an actor, Isaac gets the chance to play a leading man and he slips into the role as easily and gracefully as he does his Armani suits. With a mixture of quiet determination and a knowing grasp of the morally murky waters in which his business forces him to swim, Isaac makes his Abel a impressive blend of genuine courage and felonious charm, blind to his own shortcomings perhaps, but clearly determined not to stoop any lower than his ambivalent standards permit. As Anna, Chastain has fewer scruples than her husband and not a little larceny in her own bloodstream when in comes to protecting herself and the couple’s two daughters.

Chandor paints a vivid portrait of corporate crimes large and small here, which comes to the conclusion that we should respect a hero who sticks to a self-imposed code of ethical behavior…even if it’s more than a bit deficient here and there. Credit the director and his actors for making clear-eyed observations about the way things really worked in the closing decades of the 20th century.

The Verdict? A gifted director makes the most of a rather modest story, creating a movie which should make the A-list on your “what to see on Apple/Netflix” when it shows up there.

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