With his third feature, J.C. Chandor again proves he is one of the most exciting, young voices in American cinema – a filmmaker with a keen, much-needed understanding of character and refreshing patience for organic narrative. A Most Violent Year is a much different animal than his previous two films: 2011’s talky Wall Street drama Margin Call and last year’s wordless, one-man disaster drama All Is Lost. However, it borrows the same anxieties about fate and power and explores them on his broadest stage thus far.
As its promotional material so explicitly points out, A Most Wanted Year takes place in New York in 1981 – one of the more crime-ridden eras in the city’s history. It begins as heating oil distributor, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), puts down a deposit on a waterfront parcel of land that will represent a huge step forward for his business. Before the deal closes in thirty days, Abel must deal with moving his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) into a new home, a mysterious hijacking scheme involving his trucks, a pesky district attorney (David Oyelowo) looking into the heating oil industry.
This setting – so gorgeously captured by up-and-coming cinematographer Bradford Young – is a city both alive and on the frays of collapsing into past despair. This so brilliantly mirrors Oscar Isaac’s Abel – a man brimming with confidence and charisma, but also dread and disquiet. He is a man who sees the folly in the American Dream just as much as he so badly wants to believe in it, a husband and father who loves his wife just as much a he is intimidated by her. Oscar Isaac’s fantastic control of his complexity and nuances is work deserving of both screenplay and acting accolades this coming awards season.
But, if anything, A Most Violent Year is still a successful exercise in narrative control – a film carefully maneuvered to stay at a very slow, but very gripping boil.
The supporting cast is also stellar. Jessica Chastain is the kind of female lead that we need more of in American cinema. Chic, shrewd and strong as Abel’s wife Anna, she not only commands respect but becomes the authority of the film – that rugged gangster’s daughter edge that Abel tries so carefully to control as a businessman. Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo give great turns as lawyers respectively helping Abel’s business grow and taking Abel’s business down. They all occupy their roles with such humanity; not in the sense of goodness, but in the sense of balance. The understanding that all good comes at a cost. ‘Have some pride in what you do,’ Abel boldly declares to a caucus of his heating oil competitors. And every character and performance in A Most Violent Year expresses just that: people with pride in their occupation, people on a quest to do something good in a city that makes it hard to do so.
While the film’s slow-burning tension is its greatest strength – it can also bring the film down. For the most part, the film moves with an impeccable pace – letting the characters make the choices for themselves and not letting narrative construction get the best of the movie. In this way, Chandor reveals his greatest strength as a screenwriter and, consequently, a director. His uncanny trust and interest in watching his characters respond to their environment as opposed to calculating their decisions. And while the unpredictability of the film’s trajectory is thoroughly gripping, it does get restless. It suffers from an acute multiple ending syndrome, not really knowing where to conclude its saga on a timely note and it begins to meander slightly in the third act.
A couple superfluous subplots briefly distract what begins – and ends – as a tightly-wound thriller. But, if anything, A Most Violent Year is still a successful exercise in narrative control – a film carefully maneuvered to stay at a very slow, but very gripping boil. It is another golden example of J.C. Chandor’s ever-promising skills as a filmmaker and a fascinating entry into a wide open awards season.