A Most Violent Year, film review: JC Chandor's cool crime drama is too understated

(15) JC Chandor, 124 mins Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
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The Independent Culture

A Most Violent Year carries obvious echoes of The Godfather. The key difference is that this isn't a gangster film – it just seems like one. The setting is New York in the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city's history.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant made good: a self-made businessman running a heating oil company. He has just put down a deposit to buy a huge storage facility that will give him complete control of the market, but his rivals are hijacking his lorries and intimidating his drivers, and his bankers are losing faith in him.

The point made by writer-director JC Chandor is that corruption and violence are so endemic in the New York of the period that an entrepreneur such as Abel (brilliantly played by Isaac) can't help but be affected by them. He is an honourable man who follows the right path but everyone around him, from his wife, Anna (a fiery Jessica Chastain), to his lawyer and rivals, is on the make.

There are action sequences here – hijacking of oil trucks, chases – but Chandor's real preoccupation is with Abel's struggle to "run a fair and clean business" against the odds. He may be honest but he is tough and ruthless, too. Isaac, who played the folk singer adrift in Greenwich Village in Inside Llewyn Davis, brings gravitas and a brooding intensity to his role as the increasingly desperate businessman. Chandor does an excellent job of re-creating the early 1980s, albeit with relatively little of the action set in the heart of New York itself.

A Most Violent Year doesn't have the impact of its director's superb previous feature, All Is Lost, the "one-hander" starring Robert Redford as a yachtsman stranded at sea. It is an intelligent and probing drama but one that seems just too low-key and understated in spite of the tremendous central performances.

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