After giving us the excellent financial thriller Margin Call and the gripping survival drama All is Lost, writer/director J.C. Chandor tries his hand at the crime saga with A Most Violent Year, which had its world premiere this past Thursday (Nov. 6) at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. This time out, Chandor has made perhaps his most complete and satisfying film to date, a gritty urban thriller that references The Godfather, The French Connection and especially the tough-as-nails cinematic dissections of New York City law and lawlessness that were a specialty of the late, great Sidney Lumet, who Chandor almost seems to channel here through his own unique lens.
The 1981-set film stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a young businessman who runs a growing heating oil business in New York City with the help of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Reaching a critical point in his expansion, Abel finds himself in danger on three fronts: he faces financial ruin if he does not meet the terms of a massive loan to buy a vacant storage facility, he is being pursued by a local D.A. (David Oyelowo) investigating corrupt business practices, and he is being threatened by his competitors, who are using intimidation, armed robbery and violence to drive him out of business.
Abel sees himself as a hard-nosed but principled man who runs a clean shop and wants desperately to keep it that way. He’s no saint — he bought the company from Anna’s gangster father and the books may be slightly toasted here and there — but he’s worked his way up the ladder from driver to owner without seriously compromising his soul or his ethics. As he nears the top, however, everything he has fought to achieve on those terms begins to unravel, and he is forced step by step to decide how willing he is to win and at what cost — while also learning that almost everyone around him has already made that decision, most in ways he doesn’t like.
Chandor unpacks his story at a deliberate, medium-burn pace and favors character-driven storytelling in an almost old-fashioned “movie-movie” mode. His takes are long and methodical, and the intense yet quiet scenes of backroom deals, office discussions and half-whispered innuendos are punctuated by several superb action setpieces, including a shootout on a traffic-snarled 59th St. Bridge and a white-knuckle chase involving a car, a large oil truck and an abandoned train tunnel that segues into a pursuit on foot and eventually onto an elevated train.
That latter sequence comes around two-thirds of the way into the film and is a genuine showstopper, notable for Chandor’s effortless and geographically coherent staging of the action. Much of A Most Violent Year feels and plays like that: crisp, economical and well-ordered at all times, with the narrative and all its elements organized for maximum clarity and forward momentum. If the film does seem to move a little slowly at times, I think it’s more because we’re so used to the muddled race to the finish that passes for a lot of moviemaking these days that it makes something more thoughtfully delivered a bit jarring to our senses.
A few things do slip through the filmmaker’s tight and expert control: Jessica Chastain’s Lady Macbeth-like Anna is somewhat underwritten despite her clearly equal share in her husband’s business, and some of her scenes – where Abel comes home to find her seated behind a desk or on the couch, going through “the books” – feel repetitious. The director also never acts on her frequent threat to call in her father and his crew if things get rough, a gambit which may have been meant simply to add menace to her character but which ends up playing more as a plot thread left unexplored.
Other characters – including the lawyer played by the always fantastic Brooks and a driver (Elyes Gabel) who takes matters into his own hands after his truck is hijacked two times in a row – seem underserved as well, with the latter’s character arc ending up as the most contrived and the movie’s one serious wrong note (he literally just runs offscreen at one point and escapes a bunch of cops standing just feet away in an oddly staged scene). The movie never quite reaches the climactic boiling point that it seems to have been building toward – but you could argue that Chandor wanted a more realistic and low-key ending instead of some sort of epic violent confrontation (despite the movie’s title – which refers to 1981 being a particularly blood-soaked one in NYC – there is not a ton of violence in the film itself).
But ultimately those end up as quibbles and not dealbreakers. Chandor is, for the most part, on top of his game here on all fronts, and he has also found an extraordinary leading man in Isaac, one of the best young actors working today. The Inside Llewyn Davis star cuts a strong, stark figure here, very much in the mode of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, only far more sympathetic and even to some degree heroic, while conveying the deeply complex emotions and choices bubbling beneath the surface.
Cinematographer Bradford Young and production designer John P. Goldsmith have done a remarkable job capturing New York City and especially its industrial fringes as they looked 33 years ago. From the bleak waterfront warehouse and trucking facilities to the graffiti-encrusted subway cars, this is a vision of a tough, take-no-prisoners city that at one point arguably wore its ugliness as a badge of honor. The costumes and hair also deliver that same vibe without the gaudiness and exaggeration of, say, American Hustle. The movie is soaked thoroughly in the essence of its specific time in the history of New York and brings it fully to life.
With three solid films now to his credit, J.C. Chandor is without question a director to keep watching. Each of his films have dealt with an apocalypse of some kind: economic in Margin Call, personal in All is Lost and now moral/ethical in A Most Violent Year. His films are driven by how his characters meet those tests, and their flawed, complicated and occasionally noble responses are defining Chandor as someone who could be among the great directors in years to come.