J. C. Chandor is a little too brave for his own good…not that I’m complaining. In just three films as a director (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost” before this), he has cemented himself as one of my favorite filmmakers–in fact, most of the top critics seem to be on board concerning his newest feature. Only big box office has eluded him so far, and I expect that trend to continue with the remarkably assured, yet non-flamboyant, “A Most Violent Year”. It’s reminding many of the classic 1970’s work of helmers like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese–a style that the average, movie-going public has little patience for these days, unfortunately. Chandor’s latest is a classic slow burn, with marvelous performances, and rich payoffs. But mainstream it ain’t. Too bad, because a lot of folks are going to miss one of 2014’s finest performances from Oscar Isaac. Come to think of it, too many people bypassed his exceptional work last year, in the title role of the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”. He’s tremendous in both, and his range is remarkable.
It’s 1981, in a crime-ravaged New York City, and businessman Abel Morales (Mr. Isaac) is trying to close a deal on some waterfront property for his gas company. Almost immediately, despite Abel’s best intentions, ethical compromises arise via shady deals and numbers manipulation, as Morales tries to garner a huge sum of money in 30 days to complete this transaction. Further complicating matters, is the brutal hijacking of his gas trucks on city highways–most likely inflicted by rival companies. This leads to his drivers carrying guns for protection, opening up the possibility of a “wild west” scenario. There’s also the thwarted invasion of his lavish home, while his wife and children sleep. Meanwhile, a city attorney (a very good David Oyelowo) wants to investigate Abel’s financial books. And all this while Morales constantly speaks of his desire to stay honest, despite his tough-minded wife (an excellent, if under utilized, Jessica Chastain) being the daughter of a notorious gangster, and some obvious deceiving of the authorities, during a child’s birthday party.
The world depicted in “A Most Violent Year” is a gritty and volatile one, with danger and corruption oozing out of almost every scene. As touched on earlier, it recalls movies like Lumet’s “Serpico” and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (or maybe “Mean Streets” is more apt), in its gray-and-black depiction of that era’s Manhattan. Emotionally and thematically, it kept prodding me into seeing at as an homage to “The Godfather Part II”, especially with Isaac’s uncanny resemblance to Al Pacino throughout. I’d like to believe that was intentional, especially considering Abel Morales’ wish to stay “completely legitimate”. I so admire the patience Chandor displays with “A Most Violent Year”, and his screenplay subtly drags every drop of drama out of each confrontation and set piece. This includes something as quiet as Ms. Chastain bargaining with police for a few minutes before they scour her home, as well as something as boisterous as a foot chase through the passageways of the subway system. It’s a richly detailed script. Also, watch for an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks, as Morales’s attorney. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is, expectedly, one of 2014’s best.