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a fuel-burning thriller set in toxic New York

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year” (2014), by JC Chandor.

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At first, it looks like armor. This camel’s hair coat, light, almost golden, with square shoulders, gives Abel Morales the silhouette of a hero, which stands out clearly against the gray of the city, against the villainy of his adversaries. And then, as it progresses A Most Violent Year, we will say to ourselves that the mantle was only a shell, an exoskeleton which grew so that this living being, fragile, complex, resists the evil that the world wants it to do.

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The very brilliant, very intelligent and very seductive third film by JC Chandor tells a simple story at first glance – a New York entrepreneur tries to succeed without giving up his integrity – to better reveal the complexity of the beings and the society they form. Because the film is set in New York in 1981 (“the most violent year” of the title, the worst the city has known in terms of crime), because Oscar Isaac, who plays Abel Morales , is the Ibero-American cousin of Al Pacino, one can believe oneself transported at the time of the great politico-police thrillers of Sidney Lumet (1924-2011).

Stunning staging

But JC Chandor is not really interested in politics, rather in economics. His first feature film, Margin Call, depicted the crash of an investment bank in one night. Abel Morales sells heating oil in the suburbs of New York. To deliver it, he uses a fleet of trucks driven by members of the truckers’ union (Teamsters), under mafia influence. In this freezing winter, the contents of the tanks are sometimes stolen by armed men who beat up the drivers.

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Abel is married to Anna (Jessica Chastain), a woman from a mafia family who could help him. The proposals of this Lady Macbeth of the 1980s fall on deaf ears. His honesty stems from a purely economic calculation: transgression seems to him to carry more risk than the observance of the law. Oscar Isaac gives his character the somewhat stiff courtesy that a newcomer must adopt in the face of those who have already successfully walked the path he wants to take.

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The dazzling staging is based on a scenario whose intelligence depends on precision and meticulousness. When we have finished understanding the mass of information distilled by J. C. Chandor and his actors, we find ourselves trapped, like Abel. In a leprous New York, veiled by a toxic haze, the hero in a camel’s hair coat must make a decision. Two tremendous boosts, two pursuits, bring him closer to this fateful moment. These two sequences are enough to inject enough adrenaline for the film to find its place in the gallery of great New York thrillers.

A Most Violent Year, by JC Chandor, with Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks (EU, 2014, 130 min). TCM Cinema

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