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"A MOST VIOLENT YEAR"
(2014) (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: An early 1980s businessman tries to grow his home heating oil business but must contend with various forces that are trying to shut him down.
PLOT:
It's 1981 in New York City, and Abel Morales (OSCAR ISAAC) runs Standard Heating Co. a heating oil business he bought from a man he once worked for and ultimately married his daughter, Anna (JESSICA CHASTAIN), who helps run the business. Abel has set his sights on a lucrative piece of property he could use to expand his business, something he's hoping his former mobster turned lawyer Andrew Walsh (ALBERT BROOKS) can assist in closing the deal.

But it's a lot of money, and he isn't helped any by a number of recent thefts of his delivery trucks right out from under his drivers, including young Julian (ELYES GABEL). Abel isn't sure who's responsible, but casts wary eyes on some of his competitors, including Arnold Kline (GLENN FLESHLER), while Teamsters official Bill O'Leary (PETER GERETY) wants to arm all of the drivers, something Abel objects to.

Abel thinks he can get a business loan from his banker friend, Arthur Lewis (JOHN PROCACCINO), but the latter is getting cold feet due to District Attorney Lawrence (DAVID OYELOWO) snooping around Abel's business, certain he's up to no good (due to his father-in-law's former mob connections, something Abel has disavowed as he says he runs a legit and clean company).

When that ruins the loan, Abel is forced to get money for the purchase from others, such as Peter Forente (ALESSANDRO NIVOLA), but then ends up potentially digging himself into deeper and more dangerous debt. With time running out to get the money to close the deal or lose his substantial deposit, Abel does what he can to make that work, all while dealing with an assortment of setbacks and obstacles.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Back in my early screenwriting days, I held onto the belief that if you wanted to succeed in Hollywood as a screenwriter you needed a "knock your socks off" premise to separate your script and put a spotlight on it among the thousands of other ideas crossing decision makers' desks.

While there are advantages to such a "high concept" meets "what if" storytelling approach, it obviously doesn't always mean success in terms of getting noticed, having one's script purchased, or resulting in a win at the yearly box office as accompanied by a slew of Oscars for all involved.

Instead, sometimes what otherwise looks and sounds like a fairly mundane story turns out to be a success in one or more of those parameters. While the future of that is still uncertain for "A Most Violent Year" (beyond the script being made into a feature length film), it doesn't sound that exciting when described. I'll let you try it on.

A businessman in early 1980s era New York City wants to grow his home oil heating business by buying a piece of land, but must find alternate sources of needed purchase money once his banker gets cold feet. Cue the chirping crickets.

Okay, it's not horrible by any means and one can start imagining some interesting scenarios about what could or should happen to the protagonist and his goal. Yet, it isn't "sexy" and doesn't feature superheroes, and the basic premise -- notwithstanding the intriguing title -- doesn't seem poised to have them lining up around the block.

Yet, writer/director J.C. Chandor -- who made a name for himself directing Kevin Spacey in "Margin Call" in 2011 before putting Robert Redford on the screen by himself in 2013's "All is Lost" -- has crafted a crime drama that feels like a film of the genre of the great era of American filmmaking, the 1970s.

There's organized crime, capitalism, family strife, the American dream and more at play in this riveting tale where Oscar Isaac proves that his acclaimed work in "Inside Llewyn Davis" was no fluke. He also sort of brings to mind a young Pacino playing a determined man with a goal, beset on all sides by various obstacles and setbacks.

There's the fact that his truck drivers (including one played by Elyes Gabel) are being robbed of said vehicles and the heating oil within them, something that may or may not be perpetuated by any number of his competitors, such as a prickly, mobster style one embodied by Glenn Fleshler, or a friendlier but still ultimately suspicious one played by Alessandro Nivola. He's up to his nose in potential life-changing debt to a property owner if he can't secure the rest of the purchase money, and his banker (John Procaccino) has just gotten cold feet.

He could potentially fix things if he'd proceed like his former mobster turned lawyer (Albert Brooks) advises, but he wants to keep his operation on the up and up. Yet, an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) thinks he smells something bad, particularly since Abel bought the business from the mobster father to his current wife (Jessica Chastain) who doesn't like where things are headed, especially when her family seems to be facing increasing peril.

While the film only occasionally lives up to its descriptive title, Chandor nails the look and feel of gritty New York City back before it was cleaned up for both tourists and residents alike. In fact, and thanks to the work of cinematographer Bradford Young and location scouts and prop handlers who put era specific items in the right locations, the film feels like it was made decades ago.

The performances are solid to strong across the board (with Isaac and Chastain standing out and Brooks being good enough for some supporting performance award love), the writing is good, and the direction delivers exactly what is needed without drawing any sort of undue attention toward itself. Proving that a story and resultant film don't have to possess a premise that will violently remove garments from between your feet and your shoes, "A Most Violent Year" is one of the best films of 2014 and rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 4, 2014 / Posted January 16, 2015


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