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Movie review: ‘Violent Year’ engages through detail

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac play Anna and Abel in a scene from “A Most Violent Year.”
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac play Anna and Abel in a scene from “A Most Violent Year.” A24

J.C. Chandor is becoming American cinema’s foremost chronicler of men in crisis. Not comic-book figures or action heroes, but regular people who have made something of themselves and therefore have something to lose.

Chandor’s 2011 feature debut “Margin Call” concerns Wall Street workers attempting to stave off collapse on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. Director-screenwriter Chandor’s follow-up “All Is Lost” centers on a solo sailor (Robert Redford) who is wealthy enough to own a nice boat also unlucky enough to have to fight for his life at sea. Chandor’s latest, “A Most Violent Year,” follows a New York City heating-oil company owner (Oscar Isaac) trying to expand his business while being undermined at every turn.

Chandor examines how these men lose, or almost lose, what they have built. He does so in a steady, procedural fashion that maintains tension throughout.

“Violent,” set in 1981, is too self-consciously stylized to engage at the same level as Chandor’s first two films. But like those films, it holds the audience’s attention throughout, with Chandor keeping the story moving while also going into fascinating detail.

Chandor appears to be an insider in whatever topic he explores. In “Call,” it was shaky Wall Street offerings; in “Lost,” sailing and the avoidance of taking on water after an accident; and in “Violent,” how honesty and heating oil don’t mix.

Abel Morales (Isaac, from “Inside Llewyn Davis”) runs a successful company, and seems, as an immigrant to this country, to be living the American Dream. But outside stressors invade his minute-to-minute existence.

Chandor juxtaposes a scene in which Abel enters into a high-stakes, play-or-pay contract to purchase another company with one, happening at the same time, in which one of Abel’s trucks is hijacked on a toll bridge.

The hijack scene, in which two men forcibly eject the driver, brims with danger. After he’s thrown out of the truck, the driver lay in the middle of a lane on a busy toll bridge.

The thieves take the oil and leave the truck in the first in a string of thefts either by a competitor or someone selling to competitors. As he loses more money every day, Abel runs the risk of forfeiting his big deposit on the new property, if he cannot pay the balance within 30 days.

A district attorney’s investigator (an unwavering yet not unkind David Oyelowo, from “Selma”) also is leaning hard on Abel about his business practices, though Abel tries to run a clean business. He follows the “standard industry practice” of overcharging here and there, but he’s comparatively honest in a crooked industry.

He has withstood the almost constant temptation to work with the mob, as others in his industry do. Abel bought his business from a gangster, and married that gangster’s daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain). But he relies on his own money for his business.

Chandor lays out the situation so thoroughly, and with such care, that the pressure on Abel becomes almost palpable. You can visualize Abel’s profit margin as a cloud swirling just above his head – never quite solid, ready to vanish in an instant.

As character study of a man under pressure in the dirty-in-every-sense New York of the 1970s and early ’80s, “Year” has drawn inevitable comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s films. Enhancing these comparisons are Chandor’s heavy use of shadow and his film’s palette of future-Superfund-site browns and grays.

But “Violent” lacks Lumet’s immediacy. “Violent” is studied, in bad ways as well as good. Chandor uses too many wide and long shots, as if stepping back to let us admire how well he’s captured 1981.

Isaac, an irascible delight in “Llewyn Davis,” here seems to be doing an impression of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. He exudes quiet authority. But he does too much exuding, too little emoting. He stares meaningfully and/or stays silent for a few extra beats when Abel is in conversation.

Because he lacks Pacino’s magnetism, what Isaac really is doing is daring us to stay with him. Though it can be touch and go, ultimately we do, because of how effectively Isaac portrays Abel’s arrogance, his eyes shining with determination, his mouth tightening.

Abel’s arrogance is unusually compelling because it is not tied to confidence or success. It rests in his belief that he’s smart enough to get close to corruption yet stay above the fray.

Chastain is watchable, as always, as Anna, who is the oil company’s bookkeeper and her husband’s chief prodder, encouraging Abel to act more assertively. But her character is missing an emotional backstory. Anna is more an idea than a person. That idea is Michelle-Pfeiffer-in-“Scarface” as Lady Macbeth.

Chastain and Isaac also suffer from comparison to the flashy lead actors in “American Hustle.” That was a different kind of movie, granted, but set in the same city at the same time, and thus is fresh in viewers’ minds.

One looks at Chastain’s long fingernails and big sunglasses, and at Isaac’s blown-dry pompadour, and expects a degree of passion this film does not offer. Despite its title and the Lady Macbeth angle, “Violent” can be a rather bloodless affair.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated R (language and some violence)

125 minutes

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