"A Most Violent Year" is the most welcome kind of throwback. It brings to mind the fierce New York-based productions of Sidney Lumet in particular but also the whole notion of character-driven, the-clock-is-ticking melodramas in general.
A vibrant crime story filled to overflowing with crackling situations, taut dialogue and a heightened, even operatic sense of reality, "A Most Violent Year" captures us and doesn't let go.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor has now made a trio of gripping films (including "Margin Call" and "All Is Lost") each dealing in its own way with people trying to hold their own as a world they thought they knew closes in and threatens to snuff them out. These pictures all have one foot in classic Hollywood, in the unapologetic movieness of films such as Lumet's "Serpico" and "Prince of the City," but they never feel less than completely modern.
Also like Lumet, Chandor is expert at getting actors on his wavelength, and his stars here, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, old friends from acting school at Juilliard, throw themselves into the involving roles of a Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth coming to grips with a chilly month from hell.
The setting is New York City in 1981, the same year, coincidentally, that "Prince of the City" came out, a span described in the press material as "statistically the most dangerous year in the city's history."
And as evocatively photographed by cinematographer of the moment Bradford Young ("Selma"), the visual romance of a decrepit city in decay is a considerable part of "Violent Year's" appeal.
Always a cool, in-control actor, Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") is ideal for the role of upwardly mobile businessman Abel Morales, a man possessed by the American Dream. Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Abel wears his expensive camel's hair overcoat like a talisman indicating how far he's come and where he wants to go.
A Latin American immigrant who started at the bottom and who now runs a company called Standard Heating Oil, Abel is introduced, in a great New York touch, meeting a group of Hasidic businessmen at the Brooklyn waterfront to put a cash deposit on a property he wants to buy.
Abel and his consigliere Andrew Walsh (another fine dramatic turn by Albert Brooks) know the purchase is a risky endeavor, especially given that Abel only has a month to find the money to close the deal, but they also know it could guarantee the company's future.
Though their backgrounds are very different, Abel has a tight bond with his wife, Anna (Chastain), a wised-up and ferocious Lady Macbeth type whose mob-connected father sold the company to Abel. Her unfailingly polite husband, however, though a tough customer, is determined to do things his own way and not cross the line into violence.
But as we learn when he's called in to talk to ambitious assistant district attorney Lawrence (the protean David Oyelowo), Abel is not necessarily a squeaky-clean guy. Because his wife has presented it as standard industry practice, necessary to stay alive in his cutthroat business, Abel has allowed Anna to do questionable things, such as keep two sets of books.
Abel's other major stress is a series of tanker-truck hijackings that have stolen more than 100,000 gallons of heating oil from his company over the last six months, a crime wave that hits especially close to home when Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver he has taken a fatherly interest in, becomes a hijack victim.
One of the most satisfying things about "Violent Year" is how many moving parts it contains, and how adroitly Chandor orchestrates them all to achieve maximum dramatic tension.
Among the many brush fires the unflappable Abel has to deal with are competitors he's not sure he can trust, bankers who may or may not be on his side, a union chief who wants to illegally arm his drivers, even the uncertainty engendered by a move to a new house in the tony environs of Westchester.
No matter what happens to him in this somber, high-stakes arena, Abel resists compromising his vision of himself as a person who is better than the world around him, and as we hold our breath through twist after twist to the surprising end, "A Most Violent Year" leaves us no choice but to make Abel's strivings our own. Chandor has said that he has ideas for a trilogy detailing the further adventures of Anna and Abel, and for lovers of movies that do things the way they used to, that's welcome news indeed.
'A Most Violent Year'
MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In limited release