A Most Violent Year

In case we ever wondered, writer-director J.C. Chandor has patiently illustrated, in A Most Violent Year, that 1981 New York may not have been the best time and place for entrepreneurial advancement in the home heating-oil delivery business. The ever-magnetic Oscar Isaac stars as a would-be tycoon, looking dapper in his camel hair coat, talking softly and with precision, strategically holding eye contact for too long, and struggling to maintain his integrity. Plans to expand his business have brought pressure both ethical and financial: The D.A. (David Oyelowo) is watching him too closely, rival haulers are hijacking his trucks and stealing the oil, the union wants him to arm his drivers with handguns, and his wife (Jessica Chastain), a mobster’s daughter, apparently would rather be a moll than just a bookkeeper. Perhaps worst of all, his lawyer (Albert Brooks) isn’t necessarily leveling with him. A period piece with the word “violent” right there in its title (New York crime stats bear that out), staged and shot to look like the first two Godfather films (shadowy amber compositions look for that expressive sweet spot between sepia and sallow), A Most Violent Year might disappoint some viewers by stoking unfair expectations. Instead of an over-cranked opera, it’s really just a subtle character study, and a reiteration of the perceptive question Chandor has been asking for three films now: With his self-made world maybe inevitably coming apart, what’s a man to do?