Movie review: "A Most Violent Year" a familiar crime story with less crime

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

J.C. Chandor was in his mid-30s when he directed his debut feature, 2011’s excellent (and star-stuffed) Wall Street meltdown drama “Margin Call.”

For his next trick, he took a Hollywood icon (Robert Redford) and set him adrift at sea in “All Is Lost.” Oh, and just to make it more difficult, there was almost no spoken dialogue.

Three films into his Hollywood career, a new Chandor film is already something of an event, and he seems refreshingly disinterested in treading familiar waters.

Chandor’s latest, “A Most Violent Year,” is new territory for the director, but not for the audience. It has flashes of greatness, but also feels a little too much like other, more indelible movies.

Set in New York City in 1981 (not coincidentally, one of the city’s most violent years), it follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a businessman trying to expand his share in the city’s home heating oil market.

Abel is a shrewd businessman, but one who is trying to work within the law — though the family of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is hinted to be tied to organized crime. As competition turns violent, Abel is faced with some difficult choices.

It’s NYC setting and story evokes classic gangster sagas like “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” — at times, so much it cripples the film — but Chandor’s minor twist is that Abel is a businessman through and through. He tries to rise above violence, but that tide seems to follow.

Isaac — still best know for his Oscar-nominated lead in “Inside Llewyn Davis” — is an abundantly talented actor, but he hits so many of the same notes of moral dilemma of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II” that it becomes a problem.

Chastain is the real scene-stealer here, as the dutiful wife who has a greater propensity toward violence. Chandor again has a great cast, though smaller parts from Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo (“Selma”) seem underutilized.

“A Most Violent Year” also doesn’t quite pay off the tension it builds. Though the focus is on Abel’s moral dilemma, you still wait for fireworks that don’t quite come.

It’s a very good movie that may remind you too much of great ones you’ve seen before.

"A Most Violent Year"

Opens Friday

3 stars out of 4