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'A Most Violent Year' review: Thought-provoking take on the American dream

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in a scene

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in a scene from J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year." Photo Credit: AP / Atsushi Nishijima

A bespoke suit tells us that Abel Morales, the president of an oil-heating empire and the hero of J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year," believes deeply in the American dream. The year is 1981, and New York City's crime rate is sky-high, but Abel, played by an inwardly simmering Oscar Isaac, doesn't care that his financial success makes him a target for competitors, politicians and thieves. Abel's suit is a reflection of his motto: "Have some pride in what you do."

A wealthy CEO may seem like an odd choice of protagonist these days. What's more, Abel is a stand-up guy, determined to run his business legally and honestly. His wife, Anna (a flinty Jessica Chastain), is less high-minded -- she's the daughter of a mob boss -- but Abel won't become another Don Corleone. He's just struck a crucial real estate deal (Albert Brooks plays his lawyer), he's being investigated by an ambitious D.A. (David Oyelowo), and his trucks are being hijacked routinely. Still, Abel takes the moral high road at every step.

A pattern is emerging in this third film from writer-director Chandor. His characters tend to be wealthy -- the panicked financiers in "Margin Call," the adrift yachtsman in "All Is Lost," and now the successful Abel -- but they aren't villains. Chandor is more interested in the larger forces -- government, society, human nature, even Mother Nature -- that inform their decisions and occasionally cut them down to size.

Chandor is one of the most serious and intelligent filmmakers around, but his movies tend to be less than electrifying. "A Most Violent Year" sets the stage for a showdown between principles and base instincts that never satisfyingly arrives. The stakes for Abel remain largely financial, not personal, which diminishes the sense of tension. The film also seems unable to decide on its closing note: triumph or defeat? "A Most Violent Year" feels more thought-provoking than entertaining.

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