After his debut, "Margin Call" in 2011, and its very different follow-up, "All is Lost" in 2013, writer-director J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year" is a truly impressive film, one that takes all the concerns of his prior work—money, control, fate—and puts them on a canvas as big and bleak as New York in 1981. The resemblance to Sidney Lumet's work in the '80s is not accidental. Chandor looks at human behavior, and society, and chose a dramatically and artistically appealing backdrop—and perhaps subconsciously hoped to remind us of when audiences would, and could, see films about real people in human conflict in actual cities at the theater. Like Lumet, it all seems to boil down to one question: What good is the American Dream if you can't sleep at night because of the things you did to achieve it?
Played by Oscar Isaac—costumed and made-up to look like an uncanny mix of Al Pacino and Armand Assante—Abel Morales runs a heating oil distribution business in Long Island City. When the film opens, Abel's putting down a deposit on a parcel of land owned by some Hasidim. It's a massive fuel-tank facility with access to the river, and as he explains later, it'll transform his business. If, of course, he can pay the remaining 60% in 30 days. This is a problem, with hijackers taking his trucks, and the drivers insisting on being armed, illegally, for their safety, and the D.A. (David Oyelowo) finishing up a two-year probe into the home heating oil industry and about to bring down indictments.
And so, like Macbeth, Abel has power and safety within his grasp, if only he can close his hand around it. Also like Macbeth, Abel has a supportive, strong wife—Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of the gangster Abel took ownership of the company from. Abel wants this deal because it'll be his, not just his father-in-law's, legacy coasting through time. Anna wants the deal, too, but she's more willing to use her father's methods to protect what is theirs.
Much as jazz is, famously, not just the notes but the arrangement of silences within them, "A Most Violent Year" isn't what its plot and dialogue tell you, but also what they don't say out loud. Abel's stoicism and pride vex us, and we keep expecting them to be explained in some big flashback scene about his youth or a droning speech, they aren't. At one point, he chases one of his stolen trucks into a dark tunnel and, for the first time in a long time, I sat up straight in my seat because I had no clue what was going to happen next.
The performances stun, from Isaac's work as Abel to Chastain's glam, grim Anna. Albert Brooks is a sly delight as a hangdog lawyer, and Eleys Gabel is an unexpected central part of the cast as an oil-truck driver whose hijacking turns into a loose thread that could undo Abel's efforts. Oyelowo plays a canny district attorney with a sense of both PR and tactics, and Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria, Full of Grace"), amazing in a solitary scene as a woman worried about her oil-truck driving husband, is also a stark reminder to Abel of how far he's come, and how far he could fall.
Painting a world of white snow, shadowy rooms, and grey skies, cinematographer Bradford Young—of the excellent "Pariah," "Middle of Nowhere," and "Ain't Them bodies Saints"—is at the top of his, or anyone's, game here. The costuming, by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, is also perfect. From Abel's spotless camel-hair coat to Anna's plunging necklines, it feels lived-in, not forced. And the recreation of grimy, graffiti-strewn subway cars is a nice reminder of how not-nice—but alive—New York used to be.
"Margin Call" was about people who had all the money in the world, until they didn't. "All is Lost," was about an expert seaman who had total control of his journey until he lost it. "A Most Violent Year" feels like that vertiginous moment when you may have tipped your chair too far back, but extended to two hours: Is this when Abel triumphs? Is this where he falls? "A Most Violent Year" asks you to watch and listen and pay close attention. It also rewards that investment with subtle, real pleasures and provocations. Set in that messy place where crime, business, law, and politics intersect—which is to say, the real world—"A Most Violent Year" is a slow-burn drama about what kinds of compromises you make in order to tell yourself you haven't compromised. [A]