J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year sports a most misleading title. It is set in 1981 New York, one of the bloodiest years in the city's history, but it is not concerned with gunplay or body count. The title inspires visions of Tony Soprano, but this isn't a gangster movie. The protagonist's ambitions are much greater: He wants to join the ruling class.
In financial terms, the movie was a flop. After winning a bunch of critical awards that no one who isn't paid to watch movies hears of, A Most Violent Year sank beneath the waves without a ripple after its December release. The film cost $20 million to make, but reaped only $5.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Chandor's previous films were critical darlings, too, but they fared better with audiences. There was 2013's All is Lost (Robert Redford on a boat, trying very hard not to drown). More impressive was 2011's Margin Call, unquestionably the best film about the financial crisis of 2008. Without overtly moralizing or trying to explain wonky details, Chandor put audiences in the cubicles, corner offices, and executive suites of those who engineered the greatest economic cataclysm since the 1930s. He also managed to net A-list talent - including Jeremy Irons as the dark lord of capitalism - and earned $19.5 million on a $3.5 million budget.
All is Lost and Margin Call took place in confined spaces during brief but explosively tense periods. A Most Violent Year is allowed the luxury of a whole city, plus Westchester, and six weeks to roam around the region. It focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a Colombian immigrant with dreams of legitimate power beyond the reach of the law. But the home-heating oil business he operates within is thoroughly mobbed up, his trucks are being hijacked, and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), daughter of a gangster, thinks their problems could be eased by the squeeze of a trigger. David Oyelowo, who played the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, is a district attorney investigating the industry.
The movie is slow-paced, at times too obvious, and almost entirely lacking in humor. If all that doesn't dissuade you, the cast is worth the price of admission. And the details are perfect, from Abel's immaculate camel hair coat to the nicely chosen opener of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" ("Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life"). Though audiences didn't appreciate A Most Violent Year, it is further proof Chandor is one of the most exciting new directors working today.
A Most Violent Year is showing at the Ambler Theater, 108 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, through Tuesday. Visit www.amblertheater.org for times and ticket prices.