Writer/director J. C. Chandor knows how to keep an audience glued to their seats. With his first film, Margin Call, he had us wondering until the final scene whether a Wall Street firm would crash and burn. And in his second, All is Lost, he was able to make a man all alone in a life raft compelling for nearly two hours. With his third film, A Most Violent Year, he has found another story that would not seem to be terribly interesting and found the tension that forces the audience to care. Set in 1981 in the heating oil trade, it is the tale of a good guy trying to keep his integrity when everything is set against him. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) plays the central character Abel Morales, an immigrant made good who is doing everything he can to build a business and take care of his family, but it is the most violent year in modern New York City history and you’re not sure if he can make it.
The basic story is that Abel has an idea to move up in the heating oil biz by buying his own depot with huge tanks so that rather than just sell to customers, he can sell to his competitors. He’s happily married to the beautiful Anna (Jessica Chastain) whose father sold him the company and shares his dreams of taking the business up a notch. And as the film begins, Abel has the purchase all set, and they will be closing in a couple of days, but because someone is stealing his trucks and roughing up his drivers, the teamsters decide to arm all the drivers (against Abel’s wishes.) Meanwhile, the D.A. (David Oyelowo) is building his case against the heating oil biz in general for its shady practices, and Anna seems to have cooked the books. And just as Abel and Anna move into their new mansion, someone tries to break in, leaving behind a gun that their little girl finds. Everything about this movie has you on edge for what will happen next, because this is not a nice group of people Abel is dealing with, and beating up a driver or a sales rep is just par for the course. Anna seems more comfortable with the violence and the shades of gray perhaps, since she grew up in it, but Abel really does think he can stay above it and succeed.
Isaac feels in so many scenes like the young Al Pacino in the early Godfather, where he was going to be the good guy, the one who believed the family could make money legally. As an actor he has a wonderful quiet strength that is a huge asset in this role. You wonder when the many competing travails he is facing are going to make him crack. Jessica Chastain is pretty wonderful too as the wife who is as invested in their success as he, but is less afraid of blurring the lines than her husband. A Most Violent Year is a wonderfully taut drama that may not have the most satisfying ending, but keeps you on edge from beginning to end. It would probably be just as good on a small screen, but it is definitely worth seeing.