American Dream turns dark in movie A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac plays the husband making his way in a crooked world and Jessica Chastain is his wife with mobster connections. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Oscar Isaac plays the husband making his way in a crooked world and Jessica Chastain is his wife with mobster connections. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Ambitious immigrant has moral resolve tested in slow-burn film exploring the dark reality of the American dream

Review Crime drama

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (NC16)

125 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is in the cut-throat heating oil business in New York in 1981. Unknown assailants are robbing his delivery trucks, the assistant district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is building a case against him for dodgy business practices and he needs money to close a crucial property purchase. Meanwhile, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) threatens to get her mobster father involved if Abel is not able to pull it all together.

In the bad old days before it was cleaned up and Times Square made safe and tourist- friendly, New York was something of a wild city and a law unto itself. Those making the rules there were the crooked and the powerful, people you did not want to cross.

Abel is an ambitious man trying to make his way up in that volatile world.

In the hands of another film-maker, say Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma, this could easily have been a very different movie, one that is flashier and more gorily violent.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor's style is more low-key and considered. His debut, finance thriller Margin Call (2011), was talky but had little in the way of incidental music while his follow-up drama, All Is Lost (2013), did not even have much dialogue as Robert Redford played a man lost at sea.

A Most Violent Year is similarly spare without much of a score to signal to the audience what they should be feeling.

What Chandor offers instead is a slow burn of a movie with plenty of greys instead of black-and- whites. Is Abel as corrupt as the next guy or is he merely naive in genuinely trying to do the right thing? Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) brings to the role a mix of enigma and appealing decency that will have you going from wondering about his scruples to rooting for him.

Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012), with a retro Farah Fawcett hairdo, is the perfect foil as the formidable wife constantly egging him on. She is the one who pulls the trigger on an injured deer when Abel hesitates over what to do.

Increasingly, he is a man under siege on all fronts and, as the noose tightens around him, his moral resolve begins to waver in what turns out to be a deeply cynical examination of the perversion of the American dream in the guise of a business thriller.

bchan@sph.com.sg