It appears JC Chandor is approaching filmmaking as somewhat of a challenge. After receiving an Academy Award nomination for writing his debut film Margin Call, the 2011 fast-talking pot boiler of a film about the beginnings of the 2008 financial crisis, his next project was the almost entirely wordless survival picture All is Lost, which could not have been a further departure from that first film. For his third project, Chandor has switched gears yet again, employing stars on the rise Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo for a look at (of all things) the competitive heating oil industry in New York circa 1981. Think the heating oil industry isn’t the sort of rough and tumble world that would attract Goodfellas-esque gangsters? Think again.
Abel Morales (Isaac) has built Standard Oil from scratch, utilizing his superior negotiation skills to carve out an ever-expanding niche in the New York City area. With the help of his wife Anna (Chastain), he has built his business the right way, keeping his work as above board as possible in an increasingly corrupt and violent environment. Despite this, he has drawn the attention of Lawrence (Oyelowo), an ambitious federal agent looking for some points as New York finds itself in the midst of its most violent year in the city’s history by combing through his books and looking for violations. Despite Abel’s predominantly clean reputation (especially compared to his competitors), his closet is not entirely skeleton-free, and even the best work of his lawyer (played by Albert Brooks in the most bizarre of hairpieces) can’t shake the law. The timing could not be worse, as Abel is in the midst of a real estate deal with local Orthodox Jews that will allow him to greatly expand his earning potential. The action from the feds causes Abel’s bank to back out of the deal, and the race is on for him to find new funding before he loses his deposit as he fights to keep his integrity in the face of repeated violent commandeering of his oil trucks by unknown assailants.
Margin Call was a notably modern tale, All is Lost a timeless one. With A Most Violent Year, Chandor has steered directly into a period piece, deftly recreating the noticeably grittier early 1980’s New York, from its pointed wardrobe choices (Isaac’s striking yellow trenchcoat, Chastain’s blouse with its padded shoulders) to the computer generated Twin Towers restored to the city’s timeline. Chandor does not overwhelm with these throwback sensibilities; the setting is more about a staging ground for its morality play than some specific commentary about the time. What Chandor really cares about here is how far an honest man can be pushed before he turns away from the path of the righteous, and how his choice not to give in affects the lives of the people around him. Whether it’s his lawyer or his wife (who has some questionable family members who are almost certainly involved in the mob in some fashion) or his work force, Abel is responsible for financial and physical well being of quite a few people, not to mention himself. As an immigrant, the American Dream has very specific and idealistic connotations, and even as those connotations are systemically torn down in front of him, he cannot betray himself. If he has to cheat to win, why play at all?
In making an anti-gangster gangster movie, Chandor has found the perfect lead in Oscar Isaac. After years of toiling in relative obscurity, the 34 year old actor’s huge breakout role in Inside Llewyn Davis has (somehow) led to parts in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and as the villain in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. Time will tell what befalls him in the franchise-industrial complex, but he certainly feels entirely at home in A Most Violent Year. His perfectly coiffed hair, persistent stubble and determined stare are just what Chandor needs to sell his morality play. It is a quiet film, one that is not devoid of action but more about negotiations than gunfights, and Isaac is the rock at its center, an unwavering and magnetic presence. As his second, the normally reliable Chastain is a little shaky. Her character is well-formed and generally well-implemented, but she has quite a few line readings that cross the line into melodrama; she is a tad too histrionic for Chandor’s tone. It is not a bad performance by any means, but it is a disappointing one in comparison to what is otherwise a strength. The support is excellent to a man, with Elyes Gabel putting in especially great work as one of Abel’s beset upon drivers forced to make a decision between the easy way and the hard way.
Late in the film, Abel looks at his wife with resignation and tells her that he didn’t want to become a gangster. His wife consoles him outside their expansive, modern house, but it’s clear that, perhaps only subconsciously, perhaps not, she too wants him to give in. Besides, if his business is going to be in peril both by the feds and his competitors, his family threatened, even if he plays fair, what is the point of playing fair in the first place? It would be easy for Chandor to take the cynical route, to paint Abel as an idealistic fool who cannot cope with the changing times, but that would not be nearly as interesting as what A Most Violent Year is. For the second time in a row, JC Chandor has tried something new, and for the second time in a row, he has proven that his talent as a filmmaker cannot be limited to a specific genre or time period. His interest is in characters, and that is no different here. A Most Violent Year is a deliberately paced and quiet film, but its morals speak volumes.