A Most Violent Year’ delivers character-driven suspense

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year.

Four stars

A Most Violent Year Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks. Directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Over the course of three features, filmmaker J.C. Chandor has demonstrated remarkable range, while bringing a distinctive vision to each story he tells. Few filmmakers could smoothly transition from the hyper-detailed, dialogue-heavy financial-industry drama Margin Call to the minimalist, almost completely dialogue-free survival story All Is Lost to the sweeping, thematically rich period drama A Most Violent Year, but Chandor has pulled off all three like each is the only kind of movie he could possibly make. Year is the filmmaker’s most fully realized project, as taut and gripping as his first two films, with the same kind of intricate detail about its setting, along with a range of fascinating characters, even those who show up for only brief moments.

Set in New York City in 1981, Year delves into the inner workings of the heating-oil business, which doesn’t sound like a hotbed of intrigue, but turns out to be as ruthless as organized crime. Oscar Isaac channels early Al Pacino as Abel Morales, who’s worked his way up from the bottom to own his own heating-oil company, only to find himself the target of hijackers who steal his trucks and sell the oil to his competitors. In the midst of closing a multimillion-dollar deal, being investigated by the crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo) and moving his family into a spacious new house, Abel tries to hold onto his values, determined to prove his worth as a legitimate businessman despite what everyone assumes, often rightly, about his industry.

Chandor offers up a bleak vision of the American dream, contrasting Abel with his equally ambitious wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, in one of her best performances), who comes from a family of gangsters and has no qualms about bending the law. With beautiful, expansive cinematography from Bradford Young, Chandor shows his characters adrift in the enormity of their circumstances, whether the harsh streets of New York City or the vastness of a lavish mansion. Tense and uneasy even in its smallest details, yet still broad enough to feature a well-crafted car chase, A Most Violent Year is an exacting thriller with a rich sense of time and place, made by a filmmaker at the top of his game.

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