The problems of an indie heating-oil company may seem like small potatoes. But they mean plenty to Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in A Most Violent Year, set in the winter chill of 1981 New York, when crime infiltrated everything, bed to boardroom. Abel, an immigrant out to live the American dream, wants to play things legit. But his competitors won't let him. They know he has only 30 days to pay off a loan on a waterfront storage facility. They know he's freaked that someone is hijacking his trucks and beating on his drivers. Plus, the DA (David Oyelowo) is on his ass. Abel, who wears a fancy camel coat and has bought a new home for wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and their daughters, is being squeezed – hard. The tension is coiled and ready to spring.
That's the setup for this gripping third feature from writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost). Here, Chandor is walking mean streets paved by Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) and James Gray (The Yards). The action – a shootout on a bridge, a chase on an elevated train – is aces. But Chandor marks his territory with a more meditative pace. Abel is tempted to compromise by his lawyer (a superb Albert Brooks). But the violence comes from Anna, who reacts like the Mob daughter she is.
Chastain is killer good, shooting off her mouth like a Brooklyn bombshell: "You're not gonna like what'll happen once I get involved." And Isaac is an implosive powerhouse. Chandor gives him the space to set up psychological torments that reverberate hellishly. Evocatively shot by Selma wizard Bradford Young, A Most Violent Year reflects a world where nothing is held sacred. You watch with nerves clenched, holding on tight.