Two of the brightest screen thespians of our day lead the cast of the crime and corruption drama “A Most Violent Year.”
Golden Globe-winner Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Interstellar”) and Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) portray a threatened married couple in winter 1981. Chastain’s character, a Brooklyn-born gangster’s daughter, and Isaac’s, an immigrant from Latin America, own a New York City heating-oil business bought from her father.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor (“All Is Lost,” “Margin Call”) strikes a grim tone. Abel and Anna Morales fight on multiple fronts to keep their business afloat. Just as the early 1980s is a tough time for the couple’s Standard Heating Oil, New York City has seen better years, too. “A Most Violent Year” is set in 1981, at the time the most violent year in the city’s history.
The ambitious Abel is pursuing a daring expansion plan for Standard Heating Oil. He’s infiltrating territories served by rival companies. Perhaps because of the expansion, Morales’ drivers are being attacked by armed thugs. The mysterious thieves hijack the trucks and steal the $6,000 worth of heating oil in the tanks.
Feeling the heat, Abel and his loyal attorney, Andrew Walsh, ask the assistant district attorney for help. Instead of offering aid, the assistant DA tells them Standard Oil is in the city prosecutors’ sights.
“We believe that you and your company have broken the law,” the assistant DA says flatly. “We have evidence to prove that. So next week we will bring a case against you.”
It’s a strong scene in a movie that contains many strong scenes. Isaac co-stars in the latter exchange with Albert Brooks as the lawyer and David Oyelowo — the British actor who’s currently starring in the acclaimed civil rights drama “Selma” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — as the crisp assistant DA
The prosecutor Oyelowo plays is soft-spoken, confident, calculating. The character’s pretense of being somewhat benevolent is a performance within a performance.
The DA office scene features Abel, his lawyer and the prosecutor in a trio performance in which the prosecutor holds all the cards. Later there’s a duet featuring the DA and Chastain’s Anna, after the DA and his men make a show of force at the Morales’ fine new home in Westchester. But when Anna gets the prosecutor one on one, her advice is chilling.
“If I were you,” Anna warns, “I would start treating us with a little more respect.”
Periodic pops of noisy violence occasionally break the movie’s usually subtly menacing mood. It’s an old trick, much abused by bad horror movies but unusually effective in “A Most Violent Year.”
A confluence of threats to Abel, Anna and their livelihood pulses through Chandor’s script, well beyond the oil truck hijackings. The film successfully blends multiple plot lines and layers of characters.
As Abel, the hyper-focused Isaac supplies the steely spirit running through it all. Even though the actor rarely raises his voice, his intensity and seriousness recall a young Al Pacino.
Abel also can be warm and charming, as he is in a scene with his company’s newly hired salespeople.
Isaac and Chastain, throughout their characters’ trials, form a sizzling pair as the dare-to-play-straight Abel and old-school-inclined Anna. Playing partners in life and business, they make genuine heat.