A Most Violent Year' sells the steak, could use more sizzle

Film is a crash course in oil business, labor relations, and the criminal justice system

Tuesday January 27, 2015 04:00 am EST

At a time of short attention spans and intoxication with flashy cinematic style, even serious dramas fall prey to the temptations of showy camerawork, excessive editing, and obtrusive music. Filmmaker J.C. Chandor has been bucking the trend with his latest releases, creating tension through deliberate pacing, hushed conversation, and a resolutely sober tone.

His debut, Margin Call, examined the eve of the 2008 financial collapse from the point of view of a big, doomed investment bank. Chandor's almost dialogue-free follow-up, All Is Lost, starred Robert Redford as a lone yachtsman struggling to keep his boat from sinking.

In A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays another soft-spoken protagonist trying stoically to prevent disaster. The film takes place in 1981, statistically the "most violent year" for robbery and rape in New York City's history, and it offers a passionate homage to the urban dramas of the 1970s, particularly Sidney Lumet's gritty body of work. A Most Violent Year holds up a mirror to the complexities of city life and American capitalism. The result comes across as both rich and a little drab, like an episode of "The Wire" without the warmth or jokes.

Isaac plays Abel Morales, a self-made immigrant attempting a big expansion in his heating oil business. In the early scenes he puts a huge down payment on some waterfront property and has a month to raise the seven-figure balance. His avuncular lawyer (Albert Brooks) assures him a bank loan is in the offing, but the ink's scarcely dry on the contract when Abel finds himself besieged.

A federal prosecutor (Selma's David Oyelowo) targets Abel's business for alleged criminal activity. Abel's truck drivers are being hijacked at gunpoint by thugs, and a gunman even stalks his home. Abel's shiftiest corporate rival is played by Glenn Fleshler ("True Detective"), but even Abel's allies seem suspect.

Hoping to defuse the crises without getting his hands dirty, Abel's civilized calm irritates his combative wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). The daughter of a mob family, Anna advocates for aggressive counterattacks, at one point putting a gun in her husband's hands. Chastain has great fun with Anna's fiery temper and ruthless cunning, making a sharp contrast to Abel's icy controlled demeanor. Clearly the same traits that spark their physical attraction put them at cross-purposes in the business arena.

A Most Violent Year leaves you wishing Anna had more time in the driver's seat. As his name suggests, Abel undergoes a portentous moral dilemma in the tradition of American protagonists from Arthur Miller plays and the Godfather movies. The character's so buttoned up, and Isaac gives such an emotionally contained performance, that it's hard to have much sympathy for Abel, even though he (mostly) doesn't deserve his tribulations.

Abel sees a younger version of himself in one of his employees (Alessandro Nivola), an immigrant driver who wants to work his way up the ladder but cracks under pressure. Chandor puts a lot of chips on a relationship that conspicuously fails to pay off, with Nivola overacting despite the two characters' lack of emotional connection. (It's not unlike the importance Inherent Vice gives to the nonstarting dynamic between Joaquin Phoenix and Owen Wilson.)

Chandor clearly delved into his topics for his original screenplay, offering the audience a crash course in the oil business, labor relations, and the criminal justice system. Occasionally lo-fi chase scenes shake things up, and at one point Abel pursues a hijacker by car, on foot, and via subway. When he drives through a tunnel with a dirt floor, a dust cloud kicks up that symbolizes the labyrinthine mystery he's trying to solve. It makes you wish that Chandor had given in to temptation to offer some more moments of ostentatious style.

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