The pursuit of the American Dream has a long history of powering the thematic engine of many movies, so it's hard to believe that a new filmmaker could come up with anything fresh to say on the subject. But J.C. Chandor, the latest director to tackle the topic, certainly has an interesting twist on the usual story of power corruption and the dark path an individual takes to success. A Most Violent Year tracks the efforts of budding businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) to expand his growing oil and gas company in early 80s New York. Abel is a good man in a bad industry and he wants desperately to maintain his honesty and goodness. Where Chandor's story differs from most is that Abel actually seems capable of achieving his goals and withstanding the surrounding corruption that threatens to infect his soul.
This isn’t a typical tale of a good man gone bad, but rather a hopeful, if chilly look at a good man who does his damnedest to stay good even if he has to fudge his morals a little bit. Abel is about as far from the usual Michael Corleone level of man-to-monster transformation when touched with power as can be. The Godfather this is very much not, though according to Chandor, 80s gas company owners certainly acted like above-the-law gangsters. And Abel certainly finds himself in a classic quandary early on in his movie.
In an attempt to secure the growth of his business and wedge his foot even further into the door of the industry, Abel is working on a deal that will land him a nice chunk of property that he can use for storage. It’s a crucial move that Abel knows will make or break the future of his business, since he’s already put up half the money and now has a mere month to come up with the rest. And the price isn’t exactly cheap. Abel’s stress level rises significantly throughout the taut plot that sees his trucks hijacked at gunpoint and the crusading D.A.’s office investigating him for a litany of offences.
Chandor turns the screws here with a touch so deft it’s as though he’s willing the tension into existence, perhaps telepathically. This is only the director’s third feature and it’s astonishing how richly textured his work is at this point, as well as how much control he holds over the entire picture as an artful whole. Margin Call was a talky financial crisis drama and All Is Lost a one-man sea adventure (in addition to being a masterpiece), so A Most Violent Year is again a huge departure for Chandor. And yet he’s currently occupying that exhilarating space where he’s both defining his style and remaining unpredictable in his methods.
Here he's stripped the dramatic thriller genre down to its barest elements and then rebuilt the experience with a subtle buzz of danger lurking just beneath the surface. Absolutely everything that happens to Abel feels cinematic in execution, but smaller, quieter, more understated than usual. A foot chase across a bridge, a potential intruder in Abel's sprawling new home, and an impromptu visit by the police during Abel's young daughter's birthday party are all moments that could in concept be lifted from other crime pictures, except here they're distinct and possessed of a specifically grounded identity. Add to these sequences Bradford Young's crisp winter photography and the experience is as eloquently exciting as it is sparse.
By holding Abel’s fate in such a realistically muted balance, Chandor generates suspense and drama that never feels unnecessarily heightened. Of course, heightening suspense is often necessary in cinema, but here it’s immensely engaging to watch situations unfold in ways that are all too believable. The movie’s most complex piece of action involves a weaving car chase that sends us hurtling into a dark, dusty tunnel and even this sequence roars with realism. The hot pursuit makes for a thrilling watch in the context of the picture’s glacial pace, but Chandor rejects the obvious bells and whistles that usually accompany such cinematic chases.
The fantastic filmmaker already showed an exacting eye for shooting action with All Is Lost and here again he proves that he is nearly unparalleled among his American peers when it comes to capturing stirring set pieces in visually powerful and narratively grounded expressions. Because Chandor has proven so good at tying his action to his characters, these bursts of contained energy provide a great dramatic punch to the proceedings.
In addition to honing his stylized skills behind the camera, Chandor continues to develop his ability to illuminate the gray zones of his story through small hints and suggestions instead of full-blown explanations. He isn’t afraid to let a mystery dissolve with little to no resolution and he respects his audience enough to not hold our hands by filling in every blank.
Abel’s intimidating wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) has a less patient attitude when it comes to dealing with the growing attacks on their company and various references are made to her father, who we’re led to believe has less-than-legal means to clean up dangerous messes. But Chandor leaves it at that, never fully explaining who Anna’s dad is and why he has apparently so much pull in this world, nor why Abel is so reluctant to rely on him. We can find the explanations ourselves and A Most Violent Year is all the more potent and unnerving because of its freedom to share only the information that Chandor considers most pertinent to the scene at hand.
This is an immersive look at a good man’s battle to achieve his lofty goals of success while doing the right thing in a respectable manner. Isaac gives Abel a steely exterior that doesn’t quite mask his softer side, but still makes his goodness a symbol of strength instead of weakness. Chastain makes Anna a determined wife and mother of unwavering confidence. Supporting players Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo turn in solid work as well, while Elyes Gabel delivers a standout performance as a driver for Abel’s company who is put through the emotional and physical wringer.
With his third feature, Chandor is clearly establishing himself as a premiere filmmaker and a vital voice in American arthouse cinema. A Most Violent Year illustrates again his ability to extract dedicated work from his actors and compellingly communicate a chameleonic commitment to different periods, settings, themes, and character arcs. And yet he's pulling it all together into one spectacularly singular filmography. Bolstered by other great artists on his team, like the aforementioned Young and composer Alex Ebert, Chandor is carving out a corner in current cinema that is distinctly his own. He keeps finding an intriguing new angle on an old story and so the pursuit of the American Dream feels fresh again, now as much a tribute to the triumph of good as it is an indictment of the whole system that benefits some and destroys others. Chandor muddies the moral waters, but his articulate artistry is crystal clear.