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Review: 'A Most Violent Year' is a most calm thriller

Oscar Isaac channels Al Pacino in a film that's forever on simmer.
A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac squares off against his mob boss daughter of a wife (Jessica Chastain)A24

‘A Most Violent Year’
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes
“A Most Violent Year” is set in 1981, and despite appearances it doesn’t really feel like a ’70s throwback. It’s more like the ’70s-ish films that came after that era — pictures like Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City,” which felt generally gritty and grimy but oozed a cooler, less insistent realism. In fact, few low-watt thrillers have been on-simmer the way “A Most Violent Year” is. The most outlandish thing about it is its title.
As it happens the name is a reference not to what’s on screen but New York City in 1981, which suffered a record-high crime rate. “A Most Violent Year” is set at year’s end, so only some of that nastiness plagues Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, a businessman with mob connections — including his done-up wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a kingpin — who’s nevertheless trying to keep his oil business clean. But his trucks keep getting nicked, the contents possibly sold to one of his semi-chummy colleagues. He’s adamant about towing the line, no less because he’s also fending off the feds (led by a calmly driven David Oyelowo). And yet everyone, from a relative/employee (Elyes Gabel) to his own wife, keeps threatening to muck it all up.
Director J.C. Chandor loves a challenge; in fact he loves a variety of challenges. “Margin Call” dared to stay calm as he watched a firm narrowly avoid an economic catastrophe. “All is Lost” had one actor (Robert Redford) and two pieces of dialogue. With “A Most Violent Year” he’s seeing how far he can stretch out tension without awarding a release. Only three or four times does he cut loose — and even then he pulls back before things explode. There’s a shoot-out on the Queensboro Bridge plus a “French Connection”-y chase that shifts from car and truck to the Brooklyn B line. Both find characters who’ve had enough throwing caution and rationality and safety to the wind — only to pull back at the end, denying themselves and the audience the satisfaction of a good, destructive finish.
“A Most Violent Year” is all foreplay, but it’s good foreplay, and it’s easy to admire a film that’s about a practical protagonist done in a practical style. It even brings unexpected pleasures. The aforementioned shoot-out ends with an amusing bond between a crook and his target. The men who steal trucks aren’t larger than life hoodlums but blue collar types caught in a deadly business; at the end of the day they don’t want to kill anyone and each low-rent job only leads to more.
Glamour is a facade here, no one rocking it more than Isaac’s Abel, who wants to transcend his immigrant status and become a well-coifed, well-tailored American entrepreneur, hoping people will ignore the sometimes unsavory methods he employed to achieve it. The whole film revels in a dialectic of sincerity and pastiche, from the almost convincing rug atop Albert Brooks’ lawyer to Bradford Young’s burnished, retro cinematography, which lights Isaac like Al Pacino and even sometimes goes “The Godfather Part II” dark, where you can barely make out the people engulfed by shadows. But it’s not a mere throwback; unlike its antihero it’s able to build upon a well-trod-upon foundation to become its own, perverse thing.
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