Last Updated: February 3, 2016By Tags: ,

“A most violent year” isn’t so much about graphic violence as it is about a more invisible form of it. More specifically “Year” is a character study, a character study of the violence inflicted upon the integrity of a man who’s faced with the kinds of pressures that tempt him to abandon his principles.

It is New York, 1981. Fuel supplier Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to close a real estate deal that will allow him to expand his business. Unfortunately, many things stand in his way. The assistant district attorney (played by David Oyelowo) is charging the company with indictments of fraud. And more visible threats are striking closer to home, as trucks delivering Morales’ fuel are hijacked and an assailant lurks near Morales’ home with a gun. Morales is harangued by the people close to him, especially his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), to respond to these attacks more forcefully. As the deadline of the real estate deal draws near, Morales struggles between his drive to keep his enterprise intact and his belief that it should be operated by principles of honor, and not violence.

While the film’s plodding pace and largely muted action may be discouraging for some viewers, “Year” triumphs from the slow and gripping tension of its character drama.

Writer and director J.C. Chandor (“All is lost”) has proven to be especially adept at depicting characters battening down the hatches. His first film “Margin Call” was a taut Wall Street drama set during the onset of the 2007-08 financial crisis. In “All is Lost” a man battles it out to survive on the high seas. “A Most Violent Year,” a stylish callback to the crime dramas of the seventies and eighties, is another film by him that demonstrates the director’s capability of weaving tension through dilemmas of survival, morality, and decision-making. The chiaroscuro lighting of the film and the haunting visual palette of bleak blues and dark ochers also complement the storyline and fuel the brooding, grittily elegant tone of the film.

What also elevates the film are performances by leads Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. The latter is a stunner in a Lady Macbeth-like character clad in Armani, whose warnings to her husband (“you’re not going to like what will happen once I get involved”) are more menacing than the physical assaults that recur throughout “Year.” Isaac imparts nuanced affect to a character whose motives aren’t always clear and whose big talk about integrity and honor frequently contradicts his actions. The complexities of Isaac’s character resonates with the film’s general theme, which is the ambiguities surrounding the myth of the self-made man and the “American dream.” The film doesn’t provide any easy conclusions, but instead raises questions towards the murky boundaries between capitalism and corruption. With its wistful exploration of character and deliciously sordid atmosphere, “A violent year” stands to elevate the crime drama genre to new heights.

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