Film review: A Most Violent Year is a most intelligent movie

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain go head to head

Cert 15 | ★★★★☆

In an early scene in JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, budding oil entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) stares his employees in the eyes and says, “You will never do anything as hard as staring someone in the eye and telling the truth.” This rings especially true in their world, where dishonesty gets you ahead of the pack.
The film is set in 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in New York’s history. Morales, a Colombian immigrant upstart, experiences this violence in the form of repeated hijackings of his oil trucks, which are seriously harming his business. Suspecting the hijackers are employed by his competitors, he begins to investigate the crimes, all the while insisting his own company is keeping to the straight and narrow. But as the web of intrigue unfolds around Morales (that name is significant), his own conduct begins to fall under suspicion.
This is the American Dream as free market nightmare, in which conversations are fuelled by financial negotiation and enterprise gets nowhere without a dash of criminal lubrication. Morales’ own illegal activity is kept teasingly ambiguous, but he certainly wouldn’t have got this far without his sociopathic streak. When one of his drivers tells him he feels vulnerable on the job, he replies, “Good. Because you are.” Businessmen are portrayed as bogeymen and insecurity is rife: the setting may be 1981, but this is a film for our times.
Chandor touched on similar themes in Margin Call, his 2011 film about the financial crash. In A Most Violent Year he broadens his canvas, painting an ochre-tinged picture of a society in which corruption is endemic and the weak (including immigrants) are preyed on. His script is prone to awkward expository dialogue and lays the moral dilemmas on a bit thick, but it’s tight and carefully crafted to drip-feed suspense.
Oscar Isaac plays Morales with all the coiled menace of a young Al Pacino; here’s hoping his appearances in the upcoming Star Wars and X-Men instalments don’t draw him away from this kind of nuanced character acting. Jessica Chastain is underused as his wife, a Lady Macbeth who’s all too keen to interfere in her husband’s business. It’s a pity she doesn’t get more screen time; their marriage – one minute lovey-dovey, the next rent with mutual suspicion – adds a devilish lick of noirish paranoia to a film in which trust is a fool’s game anyway.

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