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A Most Violent Year - an honest man in Manhattan captures New York at its lowest

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Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain play Abel and Anna Morales in this instant American classic

Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain play Abel and Anna Morales in this instant American classic

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain play Abel and Anna Morales in this instant American classic

Someday someone will have to explain to me why Clint Eastwood's competent but bone-headed war film American Sniper has just received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, while A Most Violent Year got none.

Because while one is accustomed to the mercurial whims of the Academy voters, the total exclusion of JC Chandor's period thriller seems nonsensical in the extreme. Not only is it one of the very best films of the last 12 months, but it looks beautiful, is dripping with 1980s melancholy and features two stand-out performances from Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain.

They are Abel and Anna Morales, an 80s power couple whose steady rise unfortunately coincides with their native city's nadir. Mr Chandor's film is set in New York City in 1981, a year so violent and crime-ridden that the place seemed about to collapse under an avalanche of corruption and venality.

Everyone is on the take, but Abel wants to achieve success honestly. He was born in Colombia and drove oil trucks when he first arrived in America. Now, he owns the company, and has grand plans to become the biggest heating oil supplier in New York at a time when the city is poised for the mother and father of economic comebacks.

To this end, Abel has just struck a deal with a group of perplexed Orthodox Jews to buy a disused Brooklyn factory and dock on the banks of the strategically important East River. Two million dollars is the sum, and Abel hopes this will be the hub that allows him to corner the oil market in nearby Manhattan.

But there's a problem: someone has been attacking his drivers and stealing his oil, and when one assault turns violent, Abel's bank refuses to loan him the $2 million, leaving the would-be mogul in a right pickle.

As Abel Morales goes around his friends and business associates trying to raise the money, he begins to suspect that one of his competitors is trying to drive him out of business. And, meanwhile, things get personal when he discovers a mob gunman loitering outside his home.

The film's title makes it sound like an explosive, hysterical, Scorsese-style bloodbath, but JC Chandor's story is more about an oppressive dread and the constant threat of violence than its manifestation. Abel Morales is the classic American dreamer, a furiously driven immigrant who is sure his hard work and persistence are going to pay off in the end. He insists he's on a level playing field, but his brassy wife knows better.

Anna dresses like Alexis Carrington, is the daughter of a mid-ranking Mafioso and understands that the odds against an honest man making it big in '80s New York are slim to none. A kind of Lady Macbeth with shoulder pads, Anna is handy with guns and thinks Abel should get tough and defend his interests in the time-honoured Manhattan way. But Abel knows that if he succumbs to violence and mayhem he'll be lost as a man.

Rich and slow, full of shadows and nuance, A Most Violent Year is in one sense a classic American immigrant story in the tradition of The Godfather. With his dark good looks, slicked-back hair and fancy coats and suits, Oscar Issac's Morales constantly reminds you of Michael Corleone, and seems to be wrestling with similar demons. He talks quietly and pauses before he speaks, as if he has a temper to manage, but Abel seems better equipped to resist the temptations of violence, the catharsis of revenge.

And in the end, A Most Violent Year is less about crime than the sheer nerve that separates the great businessman from the plodding also-ran. Because while most would panic when faced with Abel's financial crisis, he calmly extends his risk and reaches out to grasp his one big chance. It's a wonderful film, too stately and grown-up no doubt, for the good folk at the Academy.

Irish Independent


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