A Most Violent Year – 5 stars

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J.C. Shandor wrote and directed my favorite film of 2011, Margin Call, a verbose, intricate “what if?” financial thriller set before the crash of 2007. Last year, Shandor made the critically acclaimed All is Lost, a tale of survival on the sea starring Robert Redford and featuring a script of a mere 31 pages (it is now on Netflix streaming but I’ve neglected to see it). If there was any doubt, Shandor’s third film cements that he has no interest in doing the same thing again.  A Most Violent Year is the anti-crime picture, a meticulous thriller set in the suburbs of 1981 New York City revolving around the intricacies and corruption of . . . the home heating oil business. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are a married couple working to expand their reach in the business, in the face of union troubles, a prosecutor’s investigation, the hijacking of their trucks and the intimidation of their sales force. Isaac, an immigrant, is resolute in combatting these obstacles in a legal and above-board manner. Chastain is the daughter of a mob boss, and her fealty to the straight-and-narrow is less stringent. As the screws turn, you think you can see where this is going.  You’re wrong.

I would have been perfectly happy to see Chandor take it there. But he’s more interested in a medium cool meditation that emphasizes Isaac’s passion, ethics, and larger vision. The stakes are small in the scheme of things, but to Isaac, they are everything, and Shandor effectively invests the audience in his struggle without infusing the narrative with the expected fleshy, pulpy, satisfying retributive violence. I’ll admit:  bloodletting is what I wanted and expected and as the tension mounted, Chandor’s resolution felt unsatisfying. In that way, Chandor transforms the genre.

This is an ingenious, unique movie.  Chandor’s feel for 80s New York is sharp, his pacing is taut and he never veers far from the heart of the picture, the unswerving devotion of Isaac and Chastain to their business and to each other. Their performances are riveting; they feel like a married couple who melded passionately but never addressed longstanding disputes in their view of the world.  Or, like a real married couple.

One of the best of the year.

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