As he demonstrated in his breakout debut film, 2011’s “Margin Call” (about the meltdown of a big Wall Street firm under the weight of billions in useless mortgages), writer/director J.C. Chandor is obsessed with capitalism — especially with the odds against being both a successful capitalist and an honest human being.
In “A Most Violent Year” he’s at it again, giving us the story of a business owner struggling to maintain his integrity in a business that seems to have little use for it.
The setting is New York City in 1981, a year that apparently was remarkable for the Big Apple’s high body county. Curiously, the film isn’t all that violent — at least not physically.
Oscar Isaac (who made such a strong first impression in the Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”) plays Abel Morales, the immigrant operator of a heating oil distributorship.
As the film begins, Abel is going all in on a major purchase. He’s snapping up a riverside oil storage facility, and to do it he has to put up everything he owns and promise to deliver another huge payment in 30 days. If he can’t raise the cash, he loses everything.
That’s just one of Abel’s headaches. His trucks are being regularly hijacked, his drivers roughed up and the fuel oil resold to his competitors. The union boss wants him to start arming his crews.
On the home front, he and his young family have just moved into a sprawling, uber-modern home out on Long Island. Not only are the payments killer, but shorty after taking up residence Abel chases away a prowler and finds a loaded pistol abandoned in the bushes outside the front door.
Even more threatening, a government prosecutor (David Oyelowo, currently seen as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma”) has set his sights on Abel, hoping to make an example of him for the legal fudging that is part and parcel of the heating oil business. Abel is particularly incensed because he scrupulously follows “standard industry practices”…which is to say he cheats, but not nearly as much as his competition.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be a gangster,” he protests.
And then there’s the Missus. Jessica Chastain is Anna, the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster who falls back on her old family practices whenever threatened. When her husband tries to avoid violence, she calls him “a pussy.” She carries a gun. This Lady Macbeth is not to be messed with.
Rarely has sexy and scary been combined in so potent a package.
There are some fine supporting performances — Albert Brooks as Abel’s mentor and closest adviser, Elyes Gable as an uneasy recent immigrant who drives for Abel and finds himself on the run from the authorities, Alessandro Nivola as the quietly lethal owner of a rival heating oil firm.
So far, so good.
And “A Most Violent Year” has been named best picture by members of the National Board of Review, who also voted Isaac best actor and Chastain best supporting actress.
Yet the film feels like an elaborate prelude that never gets around to the main story. The film is maddeningly low-keyed — undeniably well made, but so measured and methodical that it never grabs the emotions. Not even a deadly fuel truck chase late in the second act can kick it into high gear.