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Cinema Signal: Character study of crime in a package of rising drama and lives at stake. MOBILE version |
. "A Most Violent Year"

All he wants is a fair shot. That's far-sighted businessman/entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewin Davis") in the New York City of 1981. Labeled "A Most Violent Year" for the record-breaking level of crime that pervaded the city at the time, writer-director J.C. Chandor cuts out a small slice of it as it affects one decent man's ambitions and a wife with a big stake in making it happen.

Violence is set by the circumstances and, what there is of it, is relatively tame compared to the showy kind that's a hallmark in crime drama. Overturned trucks careen out of control and the chase near the end can't be beat or forgotten, but this is no "Fast and Furious" gravity-defier.

Morales, an immigrant in the big city, has a plan that is based on an opportunitgy to acquire a choice commercial property strategically located on the waterfront which would allow him to grow his bulk fuel delivery business for the heating industry. For this, in a standard real estate escrow deal, he puts down a large deposit which he will lose if he doesn't come up with the balance in 30 days. The clock is ticking.

But, the move has alerted a nest of viciousness and, suddenly, Abel's trucks are being high-jacked, drivers attacked, employees beaten up and hospitalized. And, by whom? The attackers, when caught, claim they don't "work for" but, rather, do their destruction as criminal freelancers on contract. Abel is the victim of someone who wants to deny him the future he's smart enough to be aiming for.

The agony of missing his payment by this wearing down of his resources by destruction of his property shows a man of deep intelligence and stalwart determination coping with evil. Angry, frustrated, it affects him, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty") (whose gangster father made the business his wedding gift), and their marriage.

As they see their dreams recede with every attack, they fly into rages, with accusations poisoning the atmosphere even more (with the versatile Chastain quite up to the acting demands).

Guns enter the scenario when a robber attempts to break-in to the Morales's home in the middle of the night. The act is thwarted by Abel's courage in trying to capture the thief. His fearlessness in the face of injustice will be tested again.

Supporting roles include a colorful set of characters in the group of property sellers, the business competitors and, in a brilliant turn, Albert Brooks as Morales' sophic and wily attorney upon whom he depends for Solomonic advice in the face of growing disaster, Andrew Walsh. David Oyelowo is an urgency provider as demanding district attorney Lawrence.

Chandor's drama is first rate and, judging by his previous film, "All Is Lost," he's a patient and meticulous storyteller. It's seen in the many moments of Morales' silent reaction to the train of attacks against him and his business. Who is his enemy? He stands, silently, to contemplate the degree of his victimization, and its motive, peering into the abyss of defeat, maintaining dignity, dressed in a camel's hair overcoat that becomes a steady symbolic icon. Someone is bent on destroying any chance he might have of success. As the tension is funneled toward a knockout crash ending we ask, is there a path of defiance?.

Chandor continuously raises the stakes on that question, capturing our sympathies and commanding our engagement. He gives us the enjoyment of penetrating character insight and expression without compromise or exaggeration.

If the film finds a big enough audience to discover and appreciate an excellent adult drama, it may well bring accolades and stardom to the Isaac brand.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as Abel and Anna,
The Moraleses, under strain, but there.

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