A Most Violent Year” is a most impressive film, firmly grounded in the “Godfather” tradition, particularly in star Oscar Isaac, who is truly great in this movie. As Abel Morales, an immigrant turned successful business owner, he is riveting to observe as he navigates high stakes deals legal and illegal. Like Al Pacino before him, his silent reserve is truly frightening.
The film is set in 1981 in New York City and an atmosphere of chaos, violence and graffiti reigns. Abel Morales started as a driver for the Standard Oil Company, delivering heating oil to homes and businesses, but now he owns it, and is embarking on a risky plan to vastly expand his business by purchasing a large loading and storage dock with vital access to the East River. He has 30 days to raise a million and a half dollars in cash, or lose the huge down payment he has already made.
Meanwhile, armed thugs are tossing his drivers from their trucks and driving off with costly oil deliveries, and the DA’s office is bringing charges against him, jeopardizing his bank loan. To address these problems, Abel tries to stay true himself. What that means, though, is what makes the movie, and Oscar Isaac, so fascinating.
From wheeling and dealing with Hasidic Jews, teamsters, an assistant DA and his own wife (Jessica Chastain), an equally driven woman eager to call in the help of the mobster dad who started the business Morales now owns, Abel subscribes to his own inscrutable morals. These rules are too strict for the mob that tries to attack his business, but not strict enough for the assistant DA (David Oyelowo) trying to indict him amidst a catastrophically violent time in New York City.
What an awesome part for Jessica Chastain as Abel’s wife. When the film opens, we see her primping in front of the mirror like a standard trophy wife, but she is far from that. More like Lady Macbeth with a desk calculator, she runs the books. Also on hand is Albert Brooks as the Morales’ lawyer, and he plays it pretty straight — not an Albert Brooks mannerism in sight.
Everyone has a different reaction to the challenges before them, but Abel is extremely resistant to arming himself or his drivers. It’s thrilling to see him maneuver and, despite the title, it really isn’t a terribly violent movie. But the air of menace hangs everywhere, and even salesmen are not safe. And there is rarely a shootout to break the tension.
Fascinating, intense and unpredictable, “A Most Violent Year” was a showcase of the serious talent of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, but also fun and exciting to watch. As highly watchable yet utterly unlikeable as he was in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Isaac totally carries an entirely different starring role in this film. And he’s in the new “Star Wars” trailer.