In an interview on “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith” podcast for his first film Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor spoke about how his debut film was his last shot at becoming a filmmaking. After years of trying to break into the business, he put all his efforts into one final attempt, which became his Oscar nominated debut Margin Call. It’s no wonder that Chandor’s main characters are fighters, survivors doing whatever they can to make it through the tough path that’s been laid out for him.
As a chameleon-like director shifting from one style to another, this instinct to carry on might be the one piece of connective tissue between Chandor’s three films. In Margin Call, he showed investment bankers desperate to dig themselves out of the mess they’ve made for themselves. Last year’s All Is Lost had Robert Redford trying to survive being shipwrecked in the middle of nowhere by himself. With his third film A Most Violent Year, Chandor’s ambition has grown significantly, borrowing from such directors as Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola for a story of unwanted corruption and a man trying to take the most correct path when all those around him are trying to push him down the wrong one.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, owner of a heating oil business, who is trying to secure a land deal which will greatly expand his business in the competitive New York City of 1981. Abel needs to come up with $1.5 million dollars in 30 days to finish the transaction. If he succeeds, he’ll become a huge player in an already-crowded field. If he fails, him and his business will be in dire straits. So, of course, everything starts to unravel as soon as the 30 days countdown begins.
Some unknown group is stealing his oil trucks at gunpoint, leaving his drivers to start carrying their own protection – a move Abel is not happy with. Meanwhile, the district attorney – played by David Oyelowo – is undergoing an investigation on Abel’s business, which is to the chagrin of Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and attorney (an unrecognizable Albert Brooks). With all these newfound problems, the bank that promised Abel the needed money has backed out of the deal, leaving him increasingly desperate to get the money in time, doing business deals with shady individuals and taking loans from people he knows better than to trust. He’s trying to get out, but his escalating problems keep pulling him back in.
With his first two films, Chandor felt like he was pushing himself to try new things, creating an incredibly talky script, followed by a film with barely any. But with A Most Violent Year, Chandor seems to be more interested in mimicking a style synonymous with the gangster film or as previously mentioned, the well-intentioned protagonists of the Lumet oeuvre. It’s not to say that Chandor can’t pull off this attempt – he does so quite well – but it never feels all that original.
As A Most Violent Year gets more intense as the timeline looms in the near distance, not only do we see some incredible scenes from Chandor and beautiful imagery from cinematographer , but we also see some heavy-handed imagery and flat out stating of themes in the film’s final scenes, almost as if to make completely sure the audience gets the point. But A Most Violent Year is at its best when it works at breaking down the American Dream, especially when looked at in comparison of Abel and his truck driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), a man who so deeply wants Abel’s life, yet the circumstances of economic prosperity haven’t give him the chances he needs, leaving him behind likely forever. Gabel’s performance is one of desperation, panicked at trying to grasp a life he will never have, especially in contrast to the calm demeanor of Abel, who you can tell can sympathize with the frenzy going on within Julian.
As fantastic as Isaac and Gabel are here, most of the great supporting cast is for the most part presented in thankless roles. Oyelowo doesn’t have much to do, whereas Brooks seems to be continuing him role in Drive. Much love has been given to Chastain performance, yet besides a few key scenes between her and Isaac, we’re not really seeing anything revelatory and new from her as an actress. Everyone here is workmanlike, just not exactly pushing their boundaries in any substantial way.
A Most Violent Year is another solid film from Chandor, who is able to create captivating ideas and presentations that never really expand from good to great. The man can build tension and tell a story that’s worth your time, but he’s yet to make that film that shows fully his capabilities. Three strong, fascinating films is rare as it is these days, but maybe film number four will grasp his clear potential to its fullest.