Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Directed by: J.C. Chandor (“All is Lost”)
Written by: J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”)

“I spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) says in “A Most Violent Year” when he feels he is losing a grip on everything he’s worked for his entire career. It’s the perfect line of dialogue and an obvious parallel to Ray Liotta’s iconic one-liner in 1990’s “Goodfellas”: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Although both men are relatively coming from the same New York City era, Abel , a Latino immigrant and owner of a heating oil business, isn’t cut from the same cloth. He isn’t too interested in putting a hit on the competition or laundering money through back alley deals. He wants to succeed, but only if he can do it the right way and through hard work. He demands legitimacy.

Obtaining the American Dream for him and his family, however, isn’t just a matter of staying on the straight and narrow. When a series of attacks on his company’s drivers becomes a detriment to his livelihood, Abel wants nothing more than to find out who is hurting his business and put a stop to it. With the city’s District Attorney (David Oyelowo) watching his every move, Abel and his mob-tied wife (Jessica Chastain) must decide how hard they will push back to ensure their ambitions are still in reach.

Atmospheric, intense, and minimal in its delivery, “A Most Violent Year” might be the anti-“Goodfellas,” but it’s a gripping achievement Martin Scorsese would value wholeheartedly. Director/writer J.C. Chandor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2011 dramatic thriller “Margin Call” about the U.S. financial crisis of 2007, tops himself here with a throwback film that feels just as authentic as anything directors Sidney Lumet or Scorsese put out 30 years ago. The narrative packs a substantial punch, especially with the powerful albeit understated performances by Isaac and Chastain, the latter of whom was snubbed of an Oscar nomination in favor of a merely adequate Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods.”

While the title of the film may confuse the average moviegoer (since there’s not much “violence” to be spoken of), the risk of it happening at any given moment is what is most palpable. Watching Abel to see if he will inevitably crack under pressure is a fascinating look into a fully fleshed out character walking a fine line between doing what is respectable and what is easy. There is a reason the word “moral” is in Abel’s last name. Whether he lives up to it or not is part of the intrigue.

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