J.C. Chandor, who has made highly charged movies about a financial crisis (“Margin Call”) and an old guy battling the sea (“All is Lost”), has now come up with a riveting crime drama about American capitalism at its ugliest, most Darwinian level.
“A Most Violent Year” makes an unlikely cross of the early works of David Mamet with the gangster sagas of Lumet, Coppola and Scorsese with even a hint of Arthur Miller in his “Death of a Salesman” mode thrown in.
By making these comparisons I’m not saying Chandor hasn’t made one of the truly original contributions to American crime fiction because he has. With this film Chandor has also made an equally strong contribution of a much smaller subgenre, that being movies about business.
Only he focuses on an arcane, non-glamorous arena where the scruples of bottom-line fever get examined in a tough-minded way. Who knew to look for corruption, violence and moral decay in the world of heating oil supplies in 1981 New York?
That year, by the way, was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history in terms of violent crimes. The business practices on display in the movie evidently fit the mood of a great city being battered by budget cuts, white flight and a fuel crisis.
Rising young stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain topline this seat-gripper about a torturous month when an ardent believer in the American Dream, a guy from Latin America, puts a downpayment on that dream. With full payment due in a month, this true believer sees his dream under siege from thugs, well-heeled competitors, his own wife’s slippery morality and an ambitious assistant D.A.
The movie has its all — a ticking clock, genuine menace from unknown villains, politics and big business colluding ruthlessly and a marital/business partnership in jeopardy.
Isaacs plays Abel Morales, an immigrant newly moved into an upscale suburban neighborhood and looking to expand a small heating-oil business he purchased from his wife’s gangster father. Anna (Chastain) admires her husband’s determination to rise to the top via a straight and narrow pathway — ruling out any of her father’s tactics from long ago — but she is willing to support this MO only up to a point.
His competitors have noticed this. Very quickly his trucks and drivers find themselves targets of highjackings by thugs who steal the oil and then sell it on illegitimate markets.
The cops are not only useless in 1981 New York, an assistant D.A. (“Selma’s” David Oyelowo) is investigating his company’s accounting practices. The books are kept by Anna and she insists she runs everything “according to industry practices.” This phrase does not sound comforting to Abel. Nor should it.
As the menace grows more insistent by the day and Anna presses Abel to use more deadly tactics to insure his family and business’ safety, Abel is confronted with nearly impossible choices. Yet he sticks to his resolve to do things the right way.
Few movies deal with this kind of moral corruption in America other than out-and-out gangster films. Films like “Wall Street” or even “The Wolf of Wall Street” touch on this but with the flamboyance of tabloid muckraking. These are gaudy entertainments while “Violent Year” occupies a grayer, more subtlety nuanced place.
Indeed the film (shot by Bradford Young) takes place within dark spaces — back alleys, empty parking lots, deserted buildings, under-lit office spaces, backs of restaurants or front seats of cars late at night.
You’d swear you are in a gangster movie but not entirely. Even as thugs menace his family and business, Abel must reject the all-American urge to do things the “easy” way, to send a message to his competitors or to commit fraud.
Failure is not an option. He won’t get his 40% deposit back if he can’t finance the loan in 30 days. But now the bank has backed out as Abel’s legal problems mount.
The writer-director is working here on a pretty sizable canvas. The cast is a large one and the locations mostly little known even to veteran viewers of New York-shot movies. Vintage cars caught in a bridge traffic jam alone make for an impressive scene.
Alex Ebert’s musical score rumbles ominously beneath each sequence, building tensions even as the vice grip of time running out and vulnerability mounting digs deeper into Abel.
The casting is remarkable. From the top players — Isaac’s always polite yet steely determination reminiscent of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Chastain’s tough daughter of Brooklyn who nonetheless loves her husband — to the many supporting roles that find actors never acting but thoroughly inhabiting their shrewd, corrupt characters, the film bubbles with energy and tension.
“A Most Violent Year” is a most welcome breath of fresh air in a cinema currently determined to exorcise originality.
Opens: December 31, 2014 (A24)
Production companies: Before the Door Pictures, Washington Square Films, Old Bull Pictures
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Glenn Fleshler, David Margulies, Jerry Adler, Ben Rosenfeld, John Procaccino, Ashley Williams, Pico Alexander, Matthew Maher, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Ralph, Daisy Tahan, Giselle Eisenberg, Taylor Richardson
Director-screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, J.C. Chandor
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Kerry Orent
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: John P. Goldsmith
Music: Alex Ebert
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editor: Ron Patane
R rating, 124 minutes