Producer: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb and J.C. Chandor
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Pscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Glenn Fleshler, David Margulies and Jerry Adler
Studio: A24 Films
One might not have heard many calls for a melodrama centered on the delivery of home heating-oil, but J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost”) makes a fairly strong case for such an unlikely tale with “A Most Violent Year,” a period piece that uses the mob-connected milieu of New York-New Jersey in the eighties to comment, as the “Godfather” movies did, on the unsavory underbelly of the American dream.
Oscar Isaac cuts a slick figure totally unlike the unkempt singer-songwriter of “Inside Llewyn Davis” as Abel Morales, a smooth operator whose perfectly-coifed hair and impeccable camel-hair topcoat signify his arrival as a major player in the home heating-oil business in the New York area—a fellow who worked his way up from being a mere truck driver to marrying the boss’s daughter and taking over the operation. The industry is dominated by families with fairly unsavory connections, who seem a bit miffed that a newcomer, with some strange ideas about breaking the rules as infrequently as possible, might be encroaching on their profits. Someone has decided to retaliate by targeting Morales’ trucks, hijacking them, stealing the oil they’re carrying and harassing the drivers in the process, while also mounting attacks on his young sales staff. That’s all against the backdrop of Abel’s plan to purchase a waterfront property that will allow him to improve distribution at lower cost and win a larger share of the market—which he’s complementing with a sales push to increase the number of his customers at the expense of competitors, of course. Meanwhile, Morales finds himself in the sights of Lawrence (David Oyelowo), an ambitious Assistant DA whose investigation, as Abel’s house lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) warns, could bring everything down.
Abel’s story is contrasted with that of one of his drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel), whom he’s taken under his wing (apparently seeing in him a reflection of his younger self), and who’s injured when his truck is hijacked. After returning to the job, a fearful Julian decides to take a gun along with him—a tactic proposed to Morales by Teamsters union boss Bill O(‘Leary (Peter Gerety) but dismissed because of the legal troubles it might cause. Events prove his reluctance well justified, as Julian takes on the hijackers on his own, only to be left on the run from the cops.
Trying to save Julian while fending off Lawrence’s queries, finding out who’s behind the attacks on his trucks and salesmen, and raising the money needed to complete his deal with Josef (Jerry Adler), the waterfront property’s owner, before he loses his down payment (a prospect raised by the bank’s sudden refusal to act on his loan request) simultaneously put Abel in quite a bind, to say the least. Fortunately he has an ally with fewer scruples than he—not his lawyer, a supremely cautious fellow, but his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), a silken beauty with an iron spine who’s key to making sure that Lawrence’s search of their house turns up nothing and far more willing to use a bullet to solve a problem than her husband is.
As writer, Chandor ably works through this welter of plot complications, reaching a climax—or more properly a series of climaxes—that are generally satisfying, even if the subplot about Julian comes off a little too pat as a commentary on how wrong the dream about making it in this country can go. And as director he’s successful not only in creating a palpable sense of place—something that production designer John P. Goldsmith, costume designer Kasia Walicka Mamone and set decorator Melanie Baker help with enormously—but in ratcheting up the tension gradually while staging a few nifty chase scenes (abetted in this by editor Ron Patane). The overall look of the film, shot in widescreen by Bradford Young, is equally essential to the mood, evoking memories of the great New York-set pictures actually made in the period.
And the casting is splendid, not only in terms of Isaac and Chastain, who capture Abel’s hard-driving, confidently cocky but still vulnerable persona and Anna’s icy resolve with aplomb, but also in the secondary roles. Brooks is wonderful as the observant but laid-back lawyer, and Adler steals his few scenes as the Jewish landlord willing to cut Morales some slack simply because it suits him. Oyelowo makes a straight-arrow antagonist, and Alessandro Nivola a smoothly fast-talking, well-connected competitor who warns Abel against borrowing money from people like himself. In smaller roles people like Gerety and David Margulies carry their own local color with them onto the set.
The New York-Jersey weather in “A Most Violent Year” looks crisp and cold. But like the films made by Sidney Lumet in the same gritty urban locale, it quickly heats up to a simmer and generates considerable tension in exploring the darker byways of the drive for success in America.