Sometimes a film doesn’t have to spell everything out to
create a compelling story. In A Most
Violent Year, writer-director J.C. Chandor asks us to fill in a number of
blanks as he fashions an intriguing tale of personal ambition. Oscar Isaac, who
springboarded to prominence in The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, fulfills the promise of that performance with
his work here as an immigrant who’s determined to succeed in a cutthroat world without
abandoning his own code of ethics.
The setting is New York City in 1981, a lowpoint in the
city’s history when crime was as prevalent as graffiti on the subways. Isaac is
operating a heating-fuel company that’s under fire from unknown conspirators.
He is still considered a newcomer—perhaps outsider
is the better word—in this small but competitive field. He has big dreams for
his company, and his family, but he faces obstacles at every step along the way:
protecting his drivers from sabotage on the road, completing a transaction for
an important piece of property that will help him expand, and negotiating with
a district attorney who is investigating corruption in the fuel oil business.
He is constantly in motion, literally and figuratively, and fights hard to
maintain control of his emotions at all times, whether acting as a father
figure to one of his employees or calling out a competitor who has stabbed him
in the back.
Isaac has an interesting backstory, which we learn piecemeal
as the story goes along: he purchased the company from his father-in-law, who
was a racketeer. His wife (Jessica Chastain) loves and supports him but keeps
her own counsel; what’s more, she isn’t afraid to rely on tactics she learned
from her dad.
Chastain etches yet another indelible portrait as a savvy
survivor with a Brooklyn background; she and Isaac make a great team. Albert
Brooks, who’s always welcome onscreen, gives an equally good, seemingly
effortless performance as Isaac’s world-weary lawyer and advisor.
Almost everyone who’s written about A Most Violent Year has invoked the name of Sidney Lumet, whose New
York-centric films (Dog Day Afternoon,
Serpico, Prince of the City) and flawed protagonists established a template
that Chandor seems to be invoking here—right down to the early 1980s time frame.
But nothing is overstated, and that’s to Chandor’s credit. He obliges us to
read what we will into the characters’ personal and professional relationships,
and understand how they reflect the mood and mindset of the City in this era. His
work is aided and abetted by the fluid camerawork of Bradford Young and the
unstressed period flavor achieved by production designer John P. Goldsmith.
I haven’t been a particular booster of J.C. Chandor’s work.
He made a showy debut with Margin Call,
which struck me as road-company David Mamet material. I thought All is Lost had good qualities, as well,
but ran out of steam halfway through. A
Most Violent Year is his best effort to date, and I have a feeling that it will
yield even greater rewards on a second viewing: that it invites that investment
of time is the highest compliment I could pay any film.