An irreversibly crooked man strives for the straight-and-narrow, constantly compromising to convince himself he’s uncompromised. You’ve seen this New York crime story, but you’ve rarely seen it as expertly controlled, tightly coiled and perfectly constructed as in “A Most Violent Year,” the third film of writer-director J.C. Chandor, he of the justly Oscar-nominated Margin Call and 2013’s All is Lost.
In this particular tale of malleable morals, you feel characters’ innocence calcifying and their culture curdling amid a frigid 1981 winter. Arctic dread looms large in every scene, and next to no one ducks its sharp, prickling and erosive wind. And while one may expect harsh eruptions of graphic violence a la The Godfather or GoodFellas, there’s just slightly more than a full clip of gunfire in the entire film.
Instead, the title references one of New York’s deadliest stretches for violent crime, of which we see little but hear plenty courtesy of talk-radio pundits burbling in the background. Played as incidental noise, it alludes to Chandor’s tightly woven theme: Though destructive, it’s but a distraction from violence of the capitalist, bureaucratic or systematic variety that one day comes gunning for us all. Pitched as a turning-point movie, Year is on a thematic level with Inherent Vice, although here, it’s an inherent vise, closing slowly, and perhaps inescapably, on its leads’ version of the American Dream.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a heating-oil truck driver who, over the past two decades, has ascended to the top of his company – buying it from his mobbed-up father-in-law and running it alongside his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain). The hue of their crimes falls somewhere between white and blue: cooking books, rigging scales, underreporting income and racketeering. But in this industry, a loosely friendly alliance of old-money dinosaurs and manor-born inheritors, it’s simply the cost of doing business.
What threatens to pitch Abel and Anna’s empire into entropy are thugs hijacking his trucks in brazenly aggressive, broad-daylight heists that rob him of thousands at a time. And it’s only his drivers under attack, heightening Abel’s suspicion it’s not an outside, run-and-gun upstart but an alleged ally. Their motive isn’t hard to spot: Abel is about to close on a sprawling waterfront port where he can buy cheap in summer and sell to customers – and competitors – at a high winter profit, placing him atop the heap.
There’s another bullet headed Abel’s way via an ambitious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo of Selma) looking to amass political capital by indicting Abel to set an example against corruption. After Abel’s investors develop cold feet, he’s left with a $1.5 million shortfall for his new property. As he tries to learn who’s robbing him, dodge the DA and secure the deal, Abel will have no choice but to dirty his hands.
Chandor eschews classic-rock shorthand, garish costumes and distracting stunt performances to enmesh you in a bygone era, and his film is a triumph of sensory expanse and envelopment. A carefully calibrated sound mix, the simmering unease of Alex Ebert’s masterful score, and gorgeous cinematography from Bradford Young (who, with Selma, has shot two of 2014’s most darkly beautiful films) demand the theatrical experience. Even the location scouting is sublime; always in the distance, New York’s skyscrapers feel like strongholds to which Abel is laying siege from his far-away fiefdom.
Year is a huge leap forward for Chandor’s direction, typically outshined by his scripts. He employs shrewd cuts and overlapping dialogue to suggest a new pack’s hunger to cannibalize the old and, with a pair of Murphy’s Law chase scenes, injects intensity without sacrificing smarts. In one, the camera seems to assume a POV of the very livelihood Abel is swiftly chasing down, moving away even as he stumbles.
It’s also Chandor’s most confident script to date, letting us piece together backstory on key players. We suspect the seemingly nebbish, but bullshit-averse, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) is on permanent loan from Anna’s unseen father – a consiglieri dispatched to ensure his little girl isn’t crushed under her husband’s big dreams. Brooks also embodies Year’s wry, weary sense of humor, with some laugh-out-loud bits (namely his response of “I am … and we are” to one of Abel’s more soul-searching questions).
As for Anna, she’s no princess easily placated by pampering. You sense a past in which she was left out of family business has spurred her to lash out at enemies and lasso Abel’s restlessness to transform him into a blunt instrument of power. When Anna says Abel is nothing like her father, it’s no emasculation. It’s an emboldening of the promise she sees in him, the skills he suppresses. Like a witch keeping watch over her cauldron to cast the spell just so, Anna is more insidiously influential than perhaps she even realizes, and Chastain avoids gun-moll trappings in a complex portrayal of a wife whose love feels far from familial but no less fierce.
Playing a man manipulated into the muck, the most obvious comparison for Isaac is that of Al Pacino. But that stops at the impeccably coiffed pompadour. With his clenched countenance and beefy, bear-like physicality (running counterpoint to Isaac’s usual lanky, loose body language), the actor channels the grim intensity of James Caan. Here, Isaac quietly asserts his place as one of today’s finest leading men, effortlessly and excitingly slipping under the skin of a born salesman.
Although less profanely flashy, his is the best monologue about sales since Glengarry Glen Ross; even his stutters and stumbles feel rehearsed to mesmerize the greenhorns he’s addressing. There are moments of shouting outrage throughout, but Isaac more strongly attunes to subtle deflations in Abel’s confidence — the gradual aversion of eye contact, the sunken shoulders of a man whose hat weighs heavily in his hand. But yet, Abel’s guile will prove as destructive as any gunman, and the film’s climax chillingly echoes his mantra of, when offered a choice, to “always take the more elegant option.”
There have been plenty of pretenders to the throne of New York crime sagas vacated by Sidney Lumet. With all the best flourishes of Coppola, Friedkin, Scorsese and De Palma thrown in for good measure, here, finally, is a thoroughly engrossing, endlessly suitable heir with meat on its bones and ice in its veins.