A Most Violent Year is set in the bleak winter of 1981, in a virtually unrecognizable New York City: subways smeared in grime and graffiti, garbage spilling off the curbs, crime in the air. You almost expect to see the hunched, paranoid throng of pedestrians sidestepping chalk outlines of homicide victims as they move en masse down the avenue.

It's the perfect setting for a guy in the glamorous business of supplying heating oil to houses, apartments, and commercial buildings. That guy is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), born in Colombia, moved to America and determined to make a life for himself, his beautiful wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and their two girls.

If only the competition would stop jacking his rigs at gunpoint, if only the District Attorney's Office weren't bearing down, demanding to see the company books. And if only Anna wouldn't glare at him like he wasn't man enough to stand up to these mugs, to the law. Her father used to own the company, and he ran things differently - if not altogether legally. Maybe Abel should start thinking that way, too.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) with a nod to the vintage crime dramas of Sidney Lumet, A Most Violent Year is, in many ways, an old-fashioned story of entrepreunership and pursuit of the American Dream. Abel puts it all on the line, borrowing money to buy a storage facility, money he should make back from the new clients he plans to attract. If only . . . but yeah, there's those heating oil companies with mob ties, and an assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo)  breathing down his neck.

Gritty, suspenseful and almost poetic in its depiction of an unforgiving town, A Most Violent Year is just shy of being great. But one pivotal character - Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver for Abel's company - proves problematic, even if his ultimate scene provides a coda of tragedy and triumph.

Isaac, whose performance in a different New York story - the early folk-music era Inside Llewyn Davis - was full of introspection and rage, evokes a young, tamped-down Al Pacino. Abel's resolve not to succumb to pressure, not pick up a weapon - is admirable. And it's nearly his downfall.

Chastain's character is tough-minded, loyal, but there's a look that suggests she could waiver and leave Abel. The supporting cast, which includes Alessandro Nivola as a friendly competitor and Albert Brooks as Abel's attorney, is uniformly good. There is a pulse-pounding chase sequence. And Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" is on the sound track.

But perhaps because it is a period piece - boxy cars, 1980s hair, and a general gloom in the air - A Most Violent Year has a tinge of romanticism about it. These were bad times, sure, and bad stuff happened, but, hey, it was kind of quaint, too. Those were the days.

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