Arts & Books

A Most Violent Year review: Oscar Isaac battles evil without breaking a sweat

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales: smartly dressed in pursuit of a villain

A Most Violent Year
Cert 15, 125 mins
Various cinemas, from January 23 in the UK

While for some, history remains just “one damned thing after another”, it also, much more tantalisingly, can still provide a startling mirror into the future. Take the action of this New York-set crime drama. Although specifically (indeed, often vividly) set in 1981 – statistically, it’s said, the most crime-ridden year in Big Apple history – it still manages to reflect altogether a more contemporary, multicultural tale of big-city vice and corruption.

A Most Violent Year is the story of a hard-working Latin American immigrant, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), trying to build his heating oil business in a dark and dangerous world where his best and laudably honest intentions are being increasingly scuppered by sharp practice among jealous rivals.

Not that gleefully nouveau riche Abel, whose endlessly natty dress sense belies his messy trade, is a complete stranger to criminality. He married into it when he took on a local gangster’s daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain), blonde and reckless to his dark and brooding.
Abel’s burgeoning empire is poised to expand big time when he strikes a deal to buy a stretch of derelict Brooklyn waterfront for a new terminal. But he still needs to raise a sizeable amount of cash in just a month to conclude the purchase, a prospect diminishing by the day as his lorries keep getting hijacked while, coincidentally, his business is being investigated by a single-minded assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo), who clearly has political ambitions.

Can Abel stick to his principles and steer the straight and narrow as events keep conspiring against him? Or will he eventually veer to the dark side?

It’s certainly a great set-up – possibly more morality play than conventional crime thriller – from J C Chandor, one of America’s more recent crop of bright writer-directors. His previous two films, Margin Call – a clammily claustrophobic fictional account of the banking collapse – and All Is Lost – a virtually dialogue-free adventure of a lone yachtsman in seagoing peril – marked him out as a filmmaker of rare intelligence in an industry now mostly dominated by regular helpings of mindless, comic-book pap.
Unfortunately and a little sadly, despite a palpable sense of time and place, and a slew of mostly excellent performances, Chandor’s latest film doesn’t really quite deliver the goods, given, at the very least, the promise – or threat – of such a potent title.

If 1981 – the year, you may recall, of Botham’s Ashes and a big royal wedding – was such a lawless binge across the pond, there is no real sense of that portrayed here, apart from a few messy felonies close to Abel and his cronies. Indeed, Chandor’s period, graffiti-strewn New York actually manages to look strangely underpopulated and even oddly bloodless, despite all the murderers, burglars and rapists who presumably made it such a drear 12
months Over There.

So, setting aside the portentousness of the title, you are instead now left with a sort of Godfather-lite, driven by character rather than violence. As Chandor has proved in the past, he does conjure up some very watchable characters here: cleft-chinned Chastain as a very pushy wife who’s one step removed from Lady Macbeth; the endlessly versatile Albert Brooks as Abel’s twinkly-eyed lawyer, who you feel probably operates quite literally Mob-handed; and brilliant British actor Oyelowo, once of Spooks and soon to be seen as Martin Luther King in Selma.

Ultimately, the success of the film must rest on the shoulders of Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac as the righteous Abel. Gazing mostly into the middle distance as he ponders the proper course in an ocean of sin and temptation, he barely breaks a sweat, even after one of the rare slices of film action: an on-foot chase with our hero doggedly in pursuit of a baddie, despite being unathletically clad in his trademark black polo neck and luxurious camel hair coat.

Isaac, so enjoyable and authentic as the eponymous, not to say entirely hapless, 1960s folk singer in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, has much less to work with on this occasion. But, against all the odds, he somehow still manages to keep us involved in his fraught moral predicament. He shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

Three stars

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/1/15)