Abel Morales is an honorable man.
He wants to run his heating oil delivery business above board. But his company, which he bought out from his father-in-law, has mobsters, underhanded competitors and the Teamsters Union to contend with. The local district attorney has been looking into the heating oil cabal in 1981 New York and has singled him out for scrutiny. “Honorable” man or not, charges could be coming any day now.
“I’ll take care of it,” he assures one and all.
Somebody is hijacking his trucks, stealing his oil and beating up his drivers. It’s already shaping up as “A Most Violent Year.” But Abel refuses to resort to violence himself.
“I refuse to live my life that way.”
His wife Anna is making no promises. She was born into this world and has nothing but contempt for her husband’s pacifist approach to the enemies gathering against him. Anna wants heads to roll, or at least bleed a little bit.
“Baby, please don’t get going on this,” he pleads. We’ve seen her temper and she’s hinted at what the right phone call will lead to.
The new film from the writer-director of “Margin Call” and “All is Lost” is a quietly gripping thriller built around a figure whose background is barely sketched in, a movie whose “Violent” title is more about the potential for violence, the tension that waiting for it creates.
Oscar Isaac’s Abel pairs nicely with Michael Corleone’s in the latter part of the “Godfather” saga. He’s achieved the American Dream. And whatever he was and has been, he is trying to rise above that. Abel never has to quote Corleone, but as we watch the perfectly-groomed, perfectly controlled businessman, with his mohair overcoat, his mansion and his Mercedes, we know he’s thinking it. Because we’re thinking it.
“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
“A Most Violent Year” follows Abel through a couple of days of crisis. He needs to get a loan approved to buy land to expand his business, but with fraud or racketeering charges pending, his bankers let him down. An ex-driver himself, he hears out the Teamsters who want him to arm his drivers. He hesitates. Anna, played by Jessica Chastain with all the malice the phrase “redheaded spitfire” brings with it, is losing patience.
“You’re not going to like what happens when I get involved.”
Chandor sets sets up a chilling dynamic — Abel, trying to act the adult, to be reasonable and demand others be reasonable with him, struggling to contain the disaster raining down on him and to restrain his wife. Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) carries a few extra pounds, a little more gravitas and an unreadable poker face in this performance. Chastain makes Anna’s fury almost as constrained, a woman who maybe married beneath herself, but who now wonders if the once street-tough guy is too soft for the business.
Isaac gets across a difficult trait for the camera to capture — dignity. Abel wears it, negotiating with Orthodox Jews (led by Jerry Adler), gently chastising his competitors, clinging to his pride even as he is begging for money to save his business.
Albert Brooks is the company lawyer who counsels caution but who makes us wonder if he doesn’t think Anna’s tougher approach is what’s called for. David Oyelowo of “Selma” and “Interstellar” is a prosecutor who perhaps sees past Abel’s “honorable man” facade.
But it is Isaac, playing a man struggling to not let his poor and rough immigrant roots show, who carries “A Most Violent Year.” He makes us care about Abel’s choices and the character compromises that come with every decision. In a film with righteous outrage yet limited violent action, it takes a great performance to make us root against meeting violence with violence. Isaac and Chandor make that come off.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo
Credits: Written and directed by . An A24 release.
Running time: 2:05