A scene from the movie "Most Violent Year"

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) discuss threats to their business and their family in A Most Violent Year

There likely have been hundreds of films about men trying to tear themselves away from a life of crime. The scenario invariably involves taking part in one last “job” that goes horribly wrong.

Are you ready for a film about a man who tries to avoid falling into a life of crime in the first place? That, essentially, is the subject of A Most Violent Year.

Abel Morales (the chameleonic Oscar Isaac) is a naturalized immigrant trying to make his mark in home heating oil. It’s an industry that—in New York City in 1981, at least—appears to be up to its exhaust ducts in corruption.

In an early scene, Morales and his lieutenant, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), make a down payment on an oil-storage facility. It’s a hazardous undertaking because Morales will lose his investment if he can’t come up with the rest of the money in 30 days.

Success is far from assured, as his competitors seem determined to force him out of business. Time after time, his trucks are waylaid by robbers who attack his drivers and steal his oil. One driver, a fellow immigrant named Julian (Elyes Gabel), ends up in the hospital.

Even more troublingly, an intruder breaks into Morales’s home while his family is sleeping. The continuing threats leave wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) concerned for the safety of their young daughters, but Morales insists he’ll take care of the situation.

“You’d better,” says Anna, who seems to have inherited her approach to trouble from her gangster-father. “You’re not going to like what happens once I get involved.”

Writer/director J.C. Chandor most recently gave us All Is Lost, the tale of a shipwrecked man (Robert Redford) who must fight Mother Nature’s continuing efforts to do him in. That unnamed character was no slouch when it came to stubborn grit, but he was a piker compared to Morales. Despite being hit by setbacks that would have reduced Job to a whimpering idiot, the businessman refuses to knuckle under.

Isaac leads the top-notch cast with his portrayal of a man who seems to be able to meet every challenge with unruffled determination. In general, the film shares his reserved personality.

That may disappoint viewers who assume something called A Most Violent Year must be a high-voltage action flick. There are a couple of exciting chase scenes, along with enough tension to support a high-wire act, but the primary emphasis is on internal fortitude, not external fireworks.

Another possible source of disappointment is an ending draped in unexpected moral ambiguity. Still, as that rare thriller about a man who avoids rather than seeks out violence, this remains a refreshing change of pace.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

A Most Violent Year, rated R, opens Friday (Jan. 30) at theaters nationwide.  

Belgian mom tries to dodge unemployment

If it seems like a slow year for female Academy Award nominees, that’s probably because you haven’t had a chance to see Two Days, One Night. After previously landing an Oscar for La Vie en Rose (2007), France’s Marion Cotillard is making a strong bid for her second win.

Cotillard’s Sandra is the troubled heart and soul of this Belgian flick, the simple story of a wife and mother fighting for her job.

Following a bout of depression that forced her to miss work, Sandra learns her colleagues have been given a stark choice: They can let Sandra keep her job or they can earn themselves a sizable bonus by allowing her to be laid off. Urged on by the foreman, they vote for the cash.

However, Sandra and a buddy persuade the boss to allow a revote on the following Monday, giving Sandra two days to change her co-workers’ minds. It’s a tough task, and not only because many of them desperately need the extra euros. It soon becomes apparent that Sandra is her own worst promoter.

Unconvinced that she deserves a break, she balks when husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) urges her to contact her co-workers one by one. She can stomach the ordeal of asking for charity only by fortifying herself with Xanax.

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike), Two Days, One Night reflects the filmmaking brothers’ humanistic concerns. Sandra’s pleas for help produce surprising and touching responses from her colleagues, many of whom are forced to choose between loyalty to their families or loyalty to their co-worker.

The film sometimes suffers from repetitiveness—after all, there are only so many ways Sandra can explain her dilemma. But the payoffs are as subtle as a moment of shared humanity and as obvious as the chance to see Cotillard give another Oscar-worthy performance.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

One Day, One Night, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Jan. 30) at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her husband (Fabrizio Rongione) discuss their problems over ice cream in Two Days, One Night (Sundance Selects photo)