Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: A Most Violent Year

Image courtesy of A24.
J.C. Chandor has, in the past few years, been building his resume with a diverse variety of films that have led many a critic to proclaim him a director to watch in the years to come. His "Margin Call" was one of the best films on the economic downturn, while his 2013 picture, "All is Lost," drew raves for its portrayal of a man (Robert Redford) lost at sea. While I liked his second film well enough, I'm even more impressed with his latest, "A Most Violent Year," a moody New York City-set film that might have been directed by Sidney Lumet had it been made 30 years ago.

Set in 1981, reportedly the highest year on record for crime in the five boroughs, "Year" follows the upward trajectory - and near downfall - of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant with ambition to spare who has decided to take over the tri-state heating oil business, a move that does not sit well with his competitors.

At the film's beginning, Abel's company has been plagued by a series of robberies during which armed men have stolen trucks filled with oil from his drivers by force. On top of that, the DA (David Oleyowo) is looking to indict Abel on a 30-plus count indictment for charges unknown. Meanwhile, Abel's wife, mob daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain, in fine form here), wants her husband to step it up a little and, if needs be, fight fire with fire.

If "A Most Violent Year" has any setbacks, it's that it is, perhaps, a bit too spare at times. Scenes during which characters breathe in the silence and talk in short, one-sentence answers occasionally leave viewers with some questions as to character motivations. But on the whole, "Year" is a very good period piece crime epic set in a not-so-distant past.

Isaac, terrific last year in "Inside Llewyn Davis," provides some strong work as Abel, who wants at the same time to be a mover and a shaker as well as a good man, while Chastain is gangbusters as his tough talking wife. Oleyowo and Albert Brooks - as Abel's lawyer - provide some solid supporting work.

Plus, the film features one of the year's best action sequences as Abel takes part in a winding chase late in the movie that begins with two vehicles flying through dark tunnels and graffiti-strewn overpasses and culminates on foot.

Chandor's film carries a gloomy and weighty mood of doom for much of its two hours, but it is never less than compelling. Although I believe the three films I've seen so far from the director range from good to very good, I'm glad to see younger American filmmakers still interested in telling stories aimed at adults and I wouldn't be surprised if we see great things from Chandor as his career progresses.

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