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Of the “prestige pictures” released this awards season, A Most Violent Year is the hardest sell of the lot.

Good performances, impeccable production design, and an insightful story don’t offer much heat without a spark of energy to set them all alight.

A Mostly Honest Businessman

Isaac investigates the aftermath of another attack
Isaac investigates the aftermath of another attack

The year is 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a heating oil business. He bought the company from his wife’s father, who was essentially a mobster. The whole industry might be corrupt, but Morales tries to make a mostly honest go of it. He’s not entirely above reproach, but he does seem to think very little of his anything-goes competitors.

In this most violent year, Morales’ heating-oil delivery trucks are being hijacked. His employees are being beaten and threatened. The police are no help.

Everyone knows that the mafia is behind it, though Morales is careful to deal with legitimate bankers and stay above board. Creepy threats come against the Morales family, at their new modern home, causing strife between Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who is also his business partner.

The teamsters union that supplies his drivers wants the drivers to start carrying guns. Morales thinks that’s a terrible idea — that guns are just more likely to escalate the violence. He proves correct after another hijacking, followed by a public shootout on a freeway overpass.

Meanwhile, Morales and his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) are trying to buy a riverfront storage facility to expand the operations. They stretch themselves very thin to make a deal with a 30-day deadline, and everything — even the press coverage of attacks against his drivers — seems to be conspiring against success.

A Simmer, Not a Boil

Oscar Isaac gives a good performance. It’s even better if you only know him from Inside Llewyn Davis because he is such a completely different character that you may not recognize him. And Jessica Chastain gives her character a well of strength and smarts that emerge when her family comes under pressure.

J.C. Chandor’s story and direction, assisted by production designer John P. Goldsmith, make A Most Violent Year look like a film that was made in the 1980s, and not just set in the 1980s. The architecture of the Morales house is ’80s modernist at its peak. Morales’ clothes, his dapper hair and cheap suits — everything adds to the convincing effect; we even get a glimpse of the old New York skyline, twin towers still standing tall.

Chandor is not exactly a master of the action scene. There are foot chases, gun shots, and a car chase, but they feel mundane, matter-of-fact recordings of events rather than action-movie thrills. I agree with the decision, by the way, as it fits very well with the overall business-suit outlook of the film.

Maybe I just don’t have a head for the challenges of running a business. The blue-collar cerebral thriller didn’t do much to hold my interest. Would it have been more exciting in 1981? Hard to say. What I kept thinking was how vibrant and energetic American Hustle seemed, compared to this more grounded, realistic, but gray vision of forty years ago.