Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s young filmmaking career has offered us two diametrically opposed films. His first movie was the wearisome, heavy-handed Wall Street critique “Margin Call”. His second film was the gripping, solitary survival drama “All is Lost”. “Margin Call” was a talky, dialogue-heavy film while “All is Lost” had only a few spoken words. “Margin Call” featured a huge impressive cast while “All is Lost” featured only Robert Redford. Two very different movies in terms of story and filmmaking approach, but two films that had me very interested in what Chandor would do next.
His third feature is “A Most Violent Year”, an unorthodox organized crime movie with a very deceptive title. This isn’t a prototypical gangster action flick. It’s a slow-burning drama set in 1981 New York City. As evident by Chandor’s other films, he is most interested in telling his stories through layered and well-defined characters. We may get that through copious dialogue or revealing observations, but his characters are his predominate storytelling tool.
In “A Most Violent Year” our main character of focus is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated and hard-working owner of a heating oil company. It’s a tough business environment but Abel has managed to grow his company mostly through legal means. We get hints that there are organized crime influences not only within the heating oil business but also in Abel’s family. Yet despite possible connections, Abel seeks to do things the right way, in hopes of avoiding any possible conflict with crime bosses or the law.
That goal becomes more difficult after his trucks begin to be hijacked during delivery runs. This creates a number of problems for Abel. The oil being stolen is taking a financial toll on his company. His firecracker wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges him to fight violence with violence. A local Teamsters head pressures Abel to break the law and arm his drivers. And to make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s company which threatens to derail a vital business acquisition.
Chandor slow-cooks all of these ingredients, meticulously building his tension at a deliberate but effective pace. There is a very strategic flow to the story and I can see where some may long for more action or a quicker tempo. But I think that would undo much of what Chandor is going for. This film isn’t about gunfights and physical violence. It’s about a man desperate to avoid all of that even though it lingers in the background and around every corner.
There is something to be said about sitting back and watching good actors work. That is one of this film’s great pleasures. Oscar Isaac, with his well-groomed appearance and camel-hair coat, is wonderfully convincing selling us on Abel’s shaky confidence and good intentions. Chastain is also very good although there were moments when she came across as a little too big and showy. And I also have to mention Albert Brooks. Simply put he is just flawless playing Abel’s attorney who always seems to know more than he lets on. And while it is a relatively small part, David Oyelowo is always a delight.
“A Most Violent Year” is a very focused film that incorporates some of the tricks from J.C. Chandor’s other movies while also setting itself apart from them. The early 80s setting is impressively realized and the cold, wintry hues help relay the needed tone. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent. The performances are precise and confident. Most importantly the story itself pulled me in and what others may see as languid storytelling I see as uniquely fresh. Chandor’s third effort is a rich and gritty character-driven thriller that proves him to be one of the filmmakers that demands to be noticed.