'A Most Violent Year': AFI Fest Review

J.C. Chandor scores again. 

J.C. Chandor's third film focuses on a businessman trying not to get dirty in crime-ridden 1980s New York City

J.C. Chandor has made a habit of turning out very good films based on ideas that would hardly set a pitch meeting on fire: Investment bankers in their office dealing with a financial crisis, an old guy lost at sea on his yacht and now men competing for control of the glamorous world of heating oil suppliers. With A Most Violent Year, the writer-director delivers again with a story of dog-eat-dog capitalism set during a notably rough patch in New York City history.

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Led by Oscar Isaac, who is superb as an independent businessman trying not to get dirty in a dirty world, this compelling tale will have to fight for any headway in the market but will impress discerning viewers with its skill at dramatizing things that make the world go round but are rarely dealt with except in outright gangster films.

As he demonstrated in his debut feature, Margin Call, Chandor has a knack for making arcane business practices not only somewhat comprehensible, but the stuff of potent human drama. He connects this drama to the American dream and the urge to get ahead in life, but neither in any pompous symbolic way nor to take potshots at capitalism. The new film is a tough-minded, bracingly blunt look at the sometimes debilitating cost of doing business that casts an unblinking eye on the physical, emotional and moral bottom line. By pointedly setting the tale in 1981, said to have been the worst year on record for violent crimes such as rape and murder in the city, Chandor seems to be saying that it doesn't have to be this bad, but this is how badly we have allowed ourselves to behave.

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The writer-director peels back the layers of his story and characters with the skill of an expert dramatist. After a startling opening in which a young oil truck driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), is brutally attacked and kicked out of his vehicle, the polite and immaculately accoutered Abel Morales (Isaac), accompanied by his dour lawyer (Albert Brooks, playing it entirely straight) concludes a major deal with some Hasidic Jews for an oil holding facility by the water in New York; Abel puts some money down and must pay the balance within the month or lose his substantial investment.

From appearances, Abel is a sincere, straightforward businessman who wants to run his Standard Heating Oil company in a proper way and is disgusted by the thuggery that has landed one of his drivers in the hospital. On the other hand, his brassy wife, Anna (JessicaChastain), is the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster who sold the company to Abel, and she's the one who first recognizes that they're "at war” with other members of the small but lucrative world of independent New York oil suppliers — even though there's no clue as to who might be behind the truck hijacking.

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Coincidentally or not, there's a great deal about Abel's manner that's reminiscent of the most famous of fictional gangsters at that particular historical moment, Michael Corleone. An immigrant of unspecified background, Abel is short and compact, always impeccably dressed and coiffed, speaks slowly and softly, and exercises his authority by deploying an arsenal of subtle behavioral tricks. But intimidation and coercion are not his thing, and he vehemently resists the Teamsters' suggestion to arm his drivers, arguing that this would just up the ante. When he approaches city officials for help, however, the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) informs him he's being charged with multiple offenses, including fraud and cooking the books, the latter one of Anna's inherited specialties.

Just as he effectively tightened the vice on the characters in his previous films, Chandor shrewdly applies the slow squeeze to Abel as the deadline approaches for paying the remainder of the bill for the property that will give him direct access to oil tankers; if he can't come up with the cash, he's finished, which his rivals know. But Abel never loses his head or his cool, which is one of the film's great strengths. In a world where participants expect to play by the rules of the jungle, Abel wants to play it straight; he doesn't share the desire to play rough, shove a competitor aside or run two sets of books when there's clearly enough in the pot for everyone.

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Is it out of habit, tradition or merely sheer malice that businessmen try not just to dominate but to ruin their rivals? Is it worth risking prison or a vendetta to knock colleagues permanently out of the race? And who, nine times out of 10, ends up getting the short end of the stick, the big shot or the little guy? Chandor's absorbing and troubling film asks these difficult questions and more against a backdrop of tacitly accepted corruption and street-level New York interaction rarely seen since the heyday of Sidney Lumet. The sense of widely shared assumptions about what's OK and what's not in business dealings is brought home powerfully, and the tension of the final stretch provokes a prolonged case of sweaty palms. The resolution is painful, a bit melodramatic, thematically apt and, for it all, feels just about right.

Whereas Margin Call dazzled with the help of several thespian luminaries, A Most Violent Year gets great mileage out of detailed character work from a very large cast. Good as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis last year, Isaac really breaks through with this performance, which, as indicated, almost uncannily recalls Al Pacino's simmeringly low-key star-making turns in the Godfather films. The roles are, in fact, quite different, as becoming a gangster is what Abel most wants to resist; he is not ruthless and evil at heart, is not emotionally closed-off. But he has an equally high level of self-control and belief in himself, even as his marriage is thrown off balance when crises prove that his wife is much tougher and far less moral than he is.

Cast against type as a thickly accented Brooklyn gal unburdened by her husband's principles, Chastain sharply conveys Anna's matter-of-fact savvy as well as her love for her man and daughters. 

Perhaps more than anything, the hulking vintage cars on display (especially in a spectacular traffic jam scene) lend a sense of the visual grossness of the time. The only technical deficiency turns up in the nighttime and low-light scenes, which, as shot by the talented rising cinematographer Bradford Young (PariahMiddle of NowhereAin't Them Bodies Saints), have a muddy thinness to them, a washed-out look that saps the images of any weight.

Production: 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, PeterGerety, 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
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Editor: Ron Patane
Music: Alex Ebert
Casting: Tiffany Little Canfield, Bernard Telsey

Rated R, 124 minutes

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