Movie News & Reviews

‘A Most Violent Year’ is a most incredible film: 4 stars

Abel (Oscar Isaac) thinks he’s an honest businessman, but he relies on his wife (Jessica Chastain) to find any means to succeed.
Abel (Oscar Isaac) thinks he’s an honest businessman, but he relies on his wife (Jessica Chastain) to find any means to succeed. A24

“A Most Violent Year” is not based on a true story. It doesn’t look like it was shot in one long take. It didn’t take 12 years to make or involve quirky set pieces or have any attention-grabbing performances.

In a year when filmmakers and actors took big creative risks, J.C. Chandor’s understated drama just couldn’t compete when it came to awards and Top 10 lists.

That’s too bad, because this is one of the smartest and best-acted films of 2014. (It finally opens in Kansas City Friday.) It immerses viewers in another time and place with an authenticity any biopic director would envy.

Not that anyone would want to be immersed in New York circa 1981, which was indeed that city’s most violent year. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has managed to establish a successful heating oil business in this environment and can live comfortably with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and their two young daughters.

Unlike most of his competitors, Abel makes a point of acting with integrity, always giving the impression of a sophisticated and honorable entrepreneur.

Just as he’s planning to expand his business, Abel comes under legal scrutiny from a corruption-fighting district attorney (David Oyelowo of “Selma”). He’s also dealing with regular daylight attacks on his delivery trucks, leaving him with terrified drivers and thousands of dollars’ worth of missing oil.

As his life spirals out of his careful control, Abel quickly learns who his real friends are and why it’s relevant that his wife is the daughter of a small-time gangster.

“A Most Violent Year” has the tone of film noir, in its depiction of a man whose moral compromises are enabled by a seductively ruthless woman. Writer/director Chandor also captures the gritty feel of the era, but his style is steady and reserved.

When he depicts a car chase, it’s a rough, surprisingly slow event, but no less intense than similar scenes from “Bullitt” or “The French Connection.” Instead of admiring the speed and stunt work, you find yourself hoping Abel doesn’t get stuck in a pothole or lost on some grimy industrial back road. And holding your breath the entire time.

Isaac is as slickly handsome here as he was disheveled and aimless as the title character of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Abel is a born salesman, whose flawless wardrobe and perfect diction are part of a facade he is determined to make real at any cost. He may just be a poor immigrant who built up a nice business, but he’s going to ensure everyone knows just how far he can take his American dream.

Anna’s tactics are somewhat less diplomatic. She wasn’t born to privilege either, but she wears it with all the entitlement of an heiress, or at least a Mafia princess.

As Abel becomes overwhelmed by his situation, Anna takes her own steps to fix things. This is no stereotypical femme fatale role, at least not in Chastain’s hands. It’s hard not to respect Anna’s clear-eyed toughness, even when she gets a little scary.

Chandor proved himself adept at dialogue-heavy relevance with the stock-market drama “Margin Call” (his screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), and then created the wordlessly thrilling Robert Redford vehicle “All Is Lost.” He combines his skill sets from both in “A Most Violent Year,” keeping a steady balance between dramatic tension and vivid, beautifully delivered dialogue.

The film’s total exclusion from this year’s Oscar nominations is as much a travesty as the minimal recognition for “Selma” and “Gone Girl.” It’s a shame it was released in a most competitive year.

‘A MOST VIOLENT YEAR’

Rated R | Time: 2:05

AWARDS SEASON SNAFUS

“A Most Violent Year” won best picture, actor and supporting actress from the National Board of Review earlier this month. (It’s a group of film pros, academics and knowledgeable enthusiasts.) The film seemed primed for Oscar nominations, but it came up empty. Some possible reasons:

▪ Timing. Sometimes a limited release in late December can tickle the fancy of Oscar voters. Or it can get lost in the holiday rush. Same thing happened to “Unbroken,” “Big Eyes” and, most notably, “Selma.”

▪ Contracts. Jessica Chastain seemed like a supporting actress shoo-in, but, according to The New York Times, she had an agreement with her “Interstellar” director, Christopher Nolan, that barred her from campaigning for any other film but that one from early October through early December. Turned out “Interstellar” wasn’t worth campaigning for.

▪ Competition. As our critic points out in her review, 2014 was too good a year for every deserving film to get nominated.

| Sharon Hoffmann, shoffmann@kcstar.com

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