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Rated 3.01 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Smart and Entertaining
by Frank Wilkins

Filmmaker J. C. Chandor, has a tremendous talent for turning the most mundane topics into entertaining dramas. He brought the obscure complexities behind the 2008 stock market crash to captivating light in 2011’s Margin Call and turned the one-man, no-dialogue sailing disaster All Is Lost into one of last year’s best films. Because he clearly understands character, dialogue, and detail, striking success again with A Most Violent Year, a film that delves into the corruption-ridden home heating oil industry in ‘80s-era New York, was inevitable.

1981 was a very bad year for New York City. In fact, one of its most violent ever – statistically speaking. The number of murders were peaking and armed robberies hit all-time highs as did most other violent crimes in the decaying city. But that doesn’t stop immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) from making a go at the home heating oil delivery business, which isn’t immune from its own brand of corruption, exploitation, and greed by those looking to gain control of the industry by any means necessary.

But Abel is a man of character. An ambitious immigrant from Latin America and a firm believer in the American Dream, his integrity and belief in doing things the right way will get pushed to the limit as he puts a huge down payment on the purchase of a waterfront dock facility that will give him a huge opportunity to corner the highly competitive fuel oil market. But with the $1.5 million note coming due at the end of the month and a swarm of competitors who’ll stop at nothing to protect their own interests, Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who handles the accounts, must find alternative ways to come up with the money after their bank backs out of the financing agreement.

In their path to the top are a bunch of shadowy goons who begin attacking Abel’s drivers and commandeering his trucks to sell the oil to shady unknown buyers on the secondary market. As if the hired hijackers weren’t obstacle enough, Abel must also face an overzealous assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) who takes a special interest in the company’s books which Anna assures are kept “according to industry practices.”

From rundown neighborhoods, grimy subways, and brown piles of snow to the greasy-palmed politicians making deals in barber shop back rooms, Chandor, with the cinematography of Bradford Young, does an admirable job recreating the era. His environments become an important character as he soaks the proceedings in a desaturated ‘70s cinematic palette that would feel at home in the portfolio of a Lumet, Friedkin, or Scorcese.

Not to be overlooked are Isaac and Chastain who display a remarkable chemistry as the steely entrepreneur and his sassy Brooklyn sidekick. Issac plays his Abel in a patient, calculated fashion, never rushing to judgment or making irrational calls, while his foul-mouthed Anna delivers powerfully in an important third act scene. Underused is Albert Brooks as Abel’s attorney who’s never given a chance to stand out.

Though there’s a breathtaking car chase that winds its way through the back streets of Brooklyn before ending on foot in a New York subway, Chandor's preference for the slow burn of calculated drama over the clapping thunder of action scenery is much appreciated here. He refuses to give way to what seems like the natural progression into another formulary gangster flick, choosing instead to get bounce from character motivations and low-lit scenes of tense dialogue. His characters never waiver and neither does the film’s deliberate pacing. Many will chafe at the film’s absence of melodrama and gratuitous violence. But give me smart over loud any day.

(Released by A24 and rated “R” for language and some violence.)

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