Great storytellers can see dramatic possibilities in the most ordinary places. New York filmmaker JC Chandor has, in his career to date, spun three lean, tense movies out of such unlikely premises as the financial crisis, boating, and a small heating oil business in the early 1980s.
In the trio of movies he’s made so far, Chandor has marked himself out as one of his generation’s most exciting filmmakers. As both writer and director, he fills his films with crisis and uncertainty; whether they’re weathering the storm of a banking disaster or bailing out a sinking yacht, his characters are constantly dealing with the ground moving between their feet. Chandor’s movies may be low-concept, but their high-drama makes them endlessly absorbing.
After more than a decade as director of commercials, Chandor made his feature debut at the age of 38 with Margin Call. Set at a fictional investment bank on the eve of the 2008 crash, it stars Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, and Stanley Tucci as a group of analysts who realise, with a lurching sickness in their stomachs, that the company they work for is on the brink of a fiscal calamity. In echoes of such Wall Street firms as Merrill Lynch or Bear Sterns, the bank’s assets are hours away from plunging in value – meaning the entire institution is itself on the brink of oblivion.
As news of the calamity heads up the bank’s chain of command, its CEO, played by Jeremy Irons, flies in via helicopter like a pallid vampire. There are midnight crisis meetings as the bank’s panicked minds attempt to figure out how to steer the business away from the abyss; someone eventually comes up with the idea of selling off as much toxic stock as they can before the bell rings for that morning’s trading. This way, the debts are handed off to the firm’s clients: an act that would save the business but damage its reputation forever. Chandor’s quick, terse dialogue and fast-paced direction means we don’t have to be experts in finance to understand Margin Call’s broader drama.
In a way, what we’re seeing is a twist on a disease thriller like Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion; what we now refer to as the subprime mortgage crisis is presented here as a virus, quietly spreading beneath the financial market’s skin. The exceptional cast – which also includes Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey and Mary McDonnell – sell the growing sense of horror at the magnitude of the damage; can a vaccine be found before it spreads completely out of control?
Chandor’s father was a long-serving banker at Merrill-Lynch, which might explain the ambivalence towards the financial sector pulsing through Margin Call. There’s a key moment in the movie where Stanley Tucci, who plays a risk management expert, sits on the steps of his expensive Manhattan home and talks to Paul Bettany about the lure of Wall Street, and how young graduates who might have gone on to become inventors, mathematicians or great scientists have chosen a lucrative career in finance instead. Those people could have done some good, he laments – instead, they’re using their intelligence for the sole purpose of making money. It’s a quietly spectacular moment, full of frustration and regret; even in isolation, it’s simply entertaining to watch two actors so effortlessly practice their craft.
In an oblique way, that same ambivalence towards unfettered capitalism filters into Chandor’s next movie, All Is Lost. Almost wordless where Margin Call is verbose, All Is Lost is a survival film starring Robert Redford as a yachtsman caught alone in the mother of all storms. Tellingly, though, it isn’t an act of god that damages the man’s boat, but an errant shipping container – a glaring symbol of modern trade. Later in the film, he tries to signal a pair of cargo ships for help; they simply glide by, seemingly oblivious to his plight. The global economy, Chandor seems to say, rumbles on like a juggernaut, enriching some while leaving the less lucky floundering in its wake.
Redford’s performance is spectacular here, the fear and desperation written across his face in every scene. Even in a career as lengthy and celebrated as his, All Is Lost deserves to be ranked among his very best films.
As odd as it might sounds, we ought to pause to talk about Redford’s boat. With an ugly wound in its side, the vessel becomes the movie’s supporting character; it’s gripping to watch Redford patch up the yacht and bail it out, willing it to stay afloat so they can both find their way back to dry land.
In its own way, All Is Lost is as gripping and skilfully made as Gravity, another film about survival in the face of an increasingly bleak outlook. In a more just movie market, Chandor’s film would have enjoyed similar financial success; while it more than made its $8 million budget back, it otherwise had to settle for critical acclaim and a handful of awards instead.
Chandor returned to dry land for his third film in 2014, the period thriller A Most Violent Year. Set in the bitter New York winter of 1981, it details a few weeks in the life of a would-be heating oil magnate, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). Plans to grow his business are hindered by the repeated hijacking of his delivery trucks, which is costing money and prompting his drivers to carry guns in their cabs. Then there’s an investigation into Morales’ potentially dodgy accounting, which could thwart his ambitions before they’ve even begun. A Most Violent Year is unusual in that it remains focused on the beginnings of an empire to the very end; as opposed to the rise-and-fall narrative of Scarface or The Departed, Chandor’s story is largely devoted to Morales closing a single deal in the face of increasing opposition.
Far from feeling dull or unengaging, however, A Most Violent Year makes those other dramas about the pursuit of the American dream seem garish and overblown. A Most Violent Year’s view is far more subtle and bleak: financial success is shown as an act of will, whether it’s against the forces of rivals or the lawmakers – and if you have the money, just about everyone’s for sale at the right price.
Morales’ quiet resolve is never less than thrilling; as in Chandor’s other films, the tension here springs from the split-second decisions he has to make in order to keep his business running or to keep himself out of reach of the law. Then there’s Jessica Chastain as his coolly ruthless wife, Anna: a New Yorker from a tough, criminal underworld background who’s brought more than a little of that gangster cunning along with her. One of the movie’s standout moments involves a brief cigarette with an investigating District Attorney (David Oyelowo) outside the Morales’s plush upstate house; meanwhile, Abel is indoors frantically hiding boxes of incriminating accounts ledgers. It’s a moment loaded with dramatic tension and wry humour.
Chandor has occasionally been compared to Sidney Lumet, the director of such gems as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. Chandor more than stands up to the comparison, and indeed, it’s sad indictment of the film industry in the 21st century that his films aren’t financed and marketed by major studios. Had Chandor been around in 1970s New Hollywood era, his work would, I’d argue, fit right alongside such filmmakers as Lumet, Coppola, or Pakula.
There is, however, plenty of time for Chandor to get the recognition he deserves. His next movie is a thriller called Triple Frontier, about drug smuggling and organized crime in South America. The last time news surfaced about the project in January, Johnny Depp was attached to one of the lead roles. With a script written by Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) and Charles Roven in place as producer, it could be the director’s most high-profile movie yet.
Whether Triple Frontier proves to be a mainstream success for Chandor or not, he deserves to keep making movies; few other filmmakers are as adept at combining intelligent writing, precise direction and engrossing suspense.