'A Most Violent Year' explores the capitalist as a gangster.

AuthorCoyle, Jake

Byline: Jake Coyle

'A Most Violent Year'

An A24 release

Rating: PG-13 for language and some violence

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

In his exciting first three films, writer-director J.C. Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch investment banker, has proven to be a canny, clear-eyed studier of capitalism, sensitive to its strivers and alert to its ethical storms.

His debut, "Margin Call,'' plunged into the board rooms of a Wall Street firm in crisis. He followed that with "All Is Lost,'' a metaphorical survival film about a man (Robert Redford) literally wrecked by the global economy.

In "A Most Violent Year,'' Chandor widens his scope, fusing a solemn meditation on the American Dream with a '70s-styled gangster flick. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the young head of a Brooklyn heating company. With a risky bit of lending, he's trying to expand his business while at the same time fending off mysterious hijackings of his trucks. It's 1981 New York, one of the city's most crime-ridden years, and violence crackles in the streets.

The atmosphere is exceedingly rich. The greatest pleasures of "A Most Violent Year,'' vividly shot by the excellent up-and-coming cinematographer Bradford Young (who also lenses "Selma''), are the earthy browns and yellows of its moody period details: Morales' beige overcoat, the bare winter trees of its suburban Westchester, the electric wide shots of New York highways.

Where we are can't be mistaken. This is Sidney Lumet territory: street-level New York, alive with corruption, danger and moral quandary. It's a street corner of cinema Lumet so definitively staked out that, though Chandor is far from his direct descendent, Lumet's spirit can't help looming over "A Most Violent Year,'' set in the year his "Prince of the City'' blazed across marquees.

The movie is doted by the standby scenes of gangster films: the clandestine gathering of rival family businesses, the shootout (handsomely done on the 59th Street Bridge), the sudden police raid of the boss's home. The film's excellent chase sequence leads irrevocably to the era's great icon of decay: a graffiti-covered subway.

That "A Most Violent Year'' builds all of this not on the usual glamorized misdeeds but on the residential oil business -- a line of work whose terrors usually only come monthly by...

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