Ambitious Latin-American immigrant and self-made businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) and his stylish, steely wife Anna (Chastain) risk everything on a deal that will make or break them, just as thieves, gangsters and corruption on all sides converge to drag Abel down.
Fiercely smart, refreshingly unpredictable, writer-director J.C. Chandor has made a specialty of the individual in crisis. His talkative Oscar-nominated script for calling card Margin Call gave us an insightful night at an investment firm in financial meltdown. Dialogue-free All Is Lost set Robert Redford an ordeal in desperate peril on the sea. Now, A Most Violent Year presents Oscar Isaac’s honest, enterprising man with a hat-trick of mounting challenges, financial, physical and moral, as he struggles to save his business, his family and his burning desire to achieve the American Dream legitimately.
The year is 1981 and New York is experiencing a historic peak in violent crimes, along with extremes of weather. Isaac’s Abel Morales sells heating oil, one of several rival independents who buy from the big boys and sell directly to householders in the New York boroughs. An opportunity to buy land with perfect potential for his operation’s expansion is grasped. It’s a bold move that could take Morales from successful family businessman to empire builder, but the decision is made and the non-refundable deposit gambled just when Morales finds himself beset all at once from every direction. His truck drivers are targeted by armed robbers in a series of heists, his salesmen brutally beaten, his bank, the union, mobsters and the law are all giving him grief, and a shadowy nemesis is up to no good at the Morales’ new showcase home. Miraculously Abel’s beautiful camel coat remains pristine through breakneck pursuits and danger dodging, but whether he can keep his hands clean when the ladder for the upwardly mobile proves very greasy keeps you guessing.
Chandor is versed in the crime classics and this has knowing echoes of The Godfather, Scarface and, particularly, Sidney Lumet’s New York chronicles such as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. The central character is singular, an honourable man who prides himself on his social advancement by using his head, hard work and charm, having spent his whole life trying not to be a gangster. This essentially decent guy has to ask himself how much he is willing to compromise to keep what he has earned.
Isaac and Chastain really take the breath away as a comely screen couple. Their suburban chic lifestyle, three daughters and a dog, their chemistry, complicity and quarrels are believable in every detail. He, immaculately tailored and looking more than ever like the young Pacino, is strikingly intelligent and sympathetically conflicted. The daughterof a cheap Brooklyn gangster, she is the polished, sexy, supportive soulmate until her lineage shockingly tells in her increasingly assertive Lady Macbeth in Armani. “You’re not gonna like what happens once I get involved”, she promises, and it’s no idle threat. Albert Brooks, as Abel’s lawyer/counsellor, Nivola as a deceptively cordial, high end competitor and Oyelowo as the persistent Assistant District Attorney focussing his ill-timed attentions on Morales are all good, but the most arresting supporting role though should be a breakthrough for the British Elyes Gabel (ex- Casualty and Game Of Thrones’ Dothraki bloodrider Rakharo) as hapless Julian, Abel’s most loyal, admiring and aspirational truck driver, terrorised into a tragic sequence of events in this startlingly gripping, beautifully dressed and shot, moral maze.
Stylish, sophisticated, simmering crime and character drama with Shakespearean dimension and bravura performances. Who knew heating oil could be a sexy subject?