The discontent over this year’s Oscars has been all about the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees. Most of that discontent has coalesced around Selma, for excellent reason. Still, what about A Most Violent Year, which opens in Tarrant County theaters this week? Not only is it a better movie than any of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, it stars a Latino actor, Oscar Isaac, whose performances merited a Best Actor nomination as much as anyone else’s.
The snub of Isaac will matter less if the 34-year-old Guatemalan native pans out the way he should. He’s not a Latin heartthrob in the mold of Antonio Banderas — he’s a bit too short to pull that off, for one thing. However, his language skills and ethnically ambiguous looks mean that he can play everything from an ex-con (Drive) to Prince John of England (Robin Hood) to a Greek-speaking high-end grifter (The Two Faces of January). His starring role in Inside Llewyn Davis showcased his manifold musical talents. Oh, and he can also act the living crap out of a role, as he shows here.
The title of A Most Violent Year refers to 1981, when violent crime reached then-record highs in New York City. That’s where Abel Morales (Isaac) runs a heating-oil delivery business that is moderately corrupt like his competitors’, only better at serving customers. The action is confined to a one-month period in the dead of winter, as Abel makes a down payment on a shipping terminal and storage facility that will give him enormous power if he can close the deal. In the meantime, though, his company is exposed both financially and legally, as a shark-like assistant D.A. (Selma’s David Oyelowo) informs him that he’s bringing corruption charges against him. On top of that, teams of armed thugs are jacking Abel’s trucks for their fuel payloads, and Abel has to resist pressure from all sides to give his drivers guns to protect themselves. He’s proven right and also plunged into more trouble when a jittery young driver named Julián (Elyes Gabel) decides to pack his own unlicensed gun and winds up in a shootout in public.
Crisis management is the specialty of filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose films (Margin Call and All Is Lost) otherwise bear little resemblance to one another. His direction here is typically free of flourishes, but he still manages the suspense expertly enough that it feels like Abel is trying to pull himself out of quicksand. Each scene seems to introduce new complications, and each prospective solution seems to bring only more problems. The film is minimally violent despite its title, yet Chandor still conjures up the sweaty fear of that shootout, whose danger is amplified by the fact that neither Julián nor the thugs really know what they’re doing with their guns. Even better is the chase scene that results when Abel finds himself nearby when another one of his trucks is hijacked and determinedly pursues the thieves himself by car and on foot.
With all this technical skill comes Chandor’s customary attention to character and flair for directing actors, making this movie feel like the crime thrillers by the late Sidney Lumet. Interesting bits surface in Abel’s conversations with the Orthodox Jewish owner of the terminal (Jerry Adler), a crusty Teamsters boss (Peter Gérety), and Julián’s Spanish-speaking girlfriend (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Jessica Chastain gives a particularly sharp performance as Abel’s hotheaded wife and accountant, a Mafia boss’ daughter who’s trying to fit in with polite society and not quite pulling it off. I really like the unspoken rapport between Abel and the D.A., two outsiders by virtue of their skin color recognizing that the other has had to claw his way into the white power structure.
Holding it all together is Isaac. Abel puts up a good front, with his hair piled high and his beige camelhair coat immaculately brushed, but Isaac conveys the scrambling resourcefulness behind the facade and the unslakable ambition that’s driving him. As his ever-tightening situation forces Abel into more and more desperate contingencies to close the deal, you see the toll that each compromise takes on this businessman. With this performance, Isaac stakes his claim to being cinema’s next great Latino leading man. That’s something cinema, not to mention the beleaguered Oscar voters, sorely needs.
A Most Violent Year
Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated R.