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A Most Violent Year

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

In little over three years and three features, American writer-director JC Chandor has launched himself into the rare company of uncompromising filmmakers with more than superheroes on the brain. 'Margin Call' (2011), filled with gloriously terse business talk, got him Oscar-nominated. 'All is Lost' (2013) had virtually no talk, but managed to distill the loner essence of its star, Robert Redford, like no one had before. Now, 'A Most Violent Year', Chandor’s absorbing no-bull New York period drama, further clarifies what might be the most promising career in American movies: an urban-headed filmmaker sparing with time and place and with an eye on the vacant throne of the late, great Sidney Lumet ('Serpico', 'Dog Day Afternoon').

Set in the chilly winter of 1981 (evoked with a minimum of perms and trench coats), the movie starts with a business deal, as Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, absorbingly anxious), an independent gas-company owner, hopes to close with some Hasidim for a precious piece of waterfront property. He leaves the meeting with 30 days to come up with an astronomical sum of money, and it's right at that moment that his problems mushroom: a politically-minded city attorney (David Oyelowo) starts breathing down his neck with aggressive financial queries; Abel’s Brooklyn-born wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), daughter of a gangster, grows fidgety; and his gas trucks keep getting hijacked on the road.

The municipal stew is dense and unusually flavoursome, of a kinship with James Gray’s 'The Yards' and other films made for the last handful of adults who still go to cinemas. An ambitious cast brings Chandor’s strained labour issues to life with utter believability – and he still somehow finds time for a thrilling chase through an abandoned rail tunnel, Abel running down the source of his woes. If there's a weakness here, it's the skeletal relationship at the core of the story, between a proud immigrant and his blonde, brassy wife who’s used to getting her way. Unintentionally, it feels a touch 'Scarface' (and Alex Ebert’s synth score doesn't help). But so many scenes percolate with a beautiful understatement that you can forgive this. Apparently, from the title, we’re supposed to know that this era of New York had it especially rough, but it’s almost incidental information, given a film with such bone-deep confidence.

Release Details

  • Release date:Friday 23 January 2015
  • Duration:125 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:J.C. Chandor
  • Cast:
    • Oscar Isaac
    • Jessica Chastain
    • David Oyelowo
    • Alessandro Nivola
    • Albert Brooks
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