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“A Most Violent Year” – low-boil tension that’s never dull

1981 was statistically one of the most brutal, murderous years in New York history. Crime, decay and corruption were threatening to engulf the city that never sleeps. It’s against this murky backdrop that director and writer J.C. Chandor sets the gritty crime drama, A Most Violent Year.

Ambitious, immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a fuel supplying company, whose trucks are constantly being hijacked by rival suppliers who intimidate and assault his drivers. The local District Attorney, Lawrence (David Oyelowo), cares more about investigating Morales on trumped-up fraud and corruption charges than clamping down on violent crime.

Abel buys a massive riverside piece of land for expansion, allowing him to transport and import fuel without using the road network, something that would put his competitors under enormous pressure. This results in even more hijackings, upsetting Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who threatens to use her gangster father’s connections to sort things out herself. But Abel’s determination to succeed, and his (admirable) moral compass, won’t allow him to back down: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do,” he tells one of his workers.

Notwithstanding the title of the film, A Most Violent Year treats violence with restraint and control. Yet, the tension is carried throughout. Chastain’s Anna is a powerful character, the proverbial “even stronger” woman behind the strong man. Isaac captures Abel’s struggle to “stay legal” and “take the path that is most right” even as the threads of his life and business begin to fray.

The film is like a more reserved, restrained version of The Godfather. It is a story about the elusive “American Dream”, and the struggle to stay honest and “moral” in a world that is not. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses yellow-tinted “scope digital” film to capture the ugliness and squalor of 1980s New York City, which looks more like the current Detroit.

The Guardian has called A Most Violent Year one of 2015’s best films so far. It’s perhaps a little early in the year to make such a pronouncement, but it is certainly an intriguing watch. This is a crime thriller that is a nuanced exploration of the underworld, slower than a pumped-up gangster flick, but never boring.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rating: 3½ out of 5

SA release date: 22 May 2015

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