Manhattan Melodrama
By Adam Nayman

A Most Violent Year
Dir. J. C. Chandor, U.S., A24

The protagonist of A Most Violent Year is a straight arrow with a crooked wife. Imagine that Michael Corleone married into the family business instead of inheriting it as birthright. And make no mistake, in this film, Oscar Isaac has been costumed, coiffed, and lit to look more than a little bit like Al Pacino circa The Godfather Part II. Jogging through empty city streets in a full sweat suit in the film’s first scene, he’s also a dead ringer for a prime-cut, pre-stardom Sylvester Stallone. “1975 was a good year,” he says at one point, which comes across as a reference to the American cinema of the seventies as much as to anything that’s going on in the story. He’s reflecting on the recent past, but behind the camera, in 2014, his director might be daydreaming about Dog Day Afternoon.

A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, only six years after Sidney Lumet released his epochal New York story, in an as-yet unreconstructed Big Apple still spattered with graffiti and split along tribal lines. As a result, J. C. Chandor’s film has the slightly jaundiced look common to 21st-century movies made in thrall to the New Hollywood; Zodiac comes to mind. Cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot David Lowery’s even more obviously nostalgic Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, puts across this second-hand aesthetic with aplomb. Like a lot of hand-me-downs, this pseudo-seventies style again proves cozy and roomy at the same time—a decent set of togs for a young(ish) filmmaker and his collaborators to try on for size.

Chandor’s career to date has consisted of quick-change acts: his first two features showcased very different skill sets and a recognizable artistic temperament—a grave, earnest sense of urgency. Margin Call, from 2011, was an ensemble drama set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis, and it had the drably splashy look of premium-cable television; it also featured the sort of skilled, showy acting that HBO and AMC show-runners rightly put front and center in their productions. What it lacked in visual interest it made up for in savvy casting: its performers, including Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, tore into their dialogue like they were eating a full-course meal. By contrast, last year’s marooned-at-sea tale All Is Lost (2013) featured only one actor and only a few lines of dialogue; it swapped the earlier film’s sleek metropolitan interiors for sunblind horizon lines and conjured up a few genuinely resonant images in the process. But the attendant emotions were largely bound up in the personage of Robert Redford—a fine piece of casting that gave the movie almost all of its ballast.

A Most Violent Year is Chandor’s most intricately scripted and assertively directed film yet, even if all he’s really asserting is a preference for the Sort of Movies That They Don’t Make Anymore. In this, the contemporary American filmmaker that he most resembles is his relative elder James Gray, who also made a Manhattan melodrama this year with The Immigrant, which reached even further back into the city’s past. The comparison is instructive, because, like Gray, Chandor is a sturdy, foursquare sort of dramatist. Margin Call was a film of carefully planted character details and thematic motifs—cf. Stanley Tucci’s near-climactic, deceptively offhand monologue about highway construction—while All Is Lost had a rather rigorous structure underneath its elemental premise. He’s a very careful filmmaker, but timorous: his films give the impression of being mapped out in advance, rather than being gradually felt through on set or fortuitously discovered in the editing room. Chandor likes long, clean narrative lines, and so it’s no surprise that, like Gray, he’s drawn to Francis Ford Coppola. And not only The Godfather; in its tale of a would-be industrial titan dragged down and through the mud by a series of jealous competitors, A Most Violent Year could be said to most resemble Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

Twenty-five years on, Tucker looks more and more like Coppola’s most nakedly revealing movie during a decade where he left himself exposed time and again: its self-portrait of the artist as a fundamentally decent man punished for his brilliance is brazen and touching. Coppola told that story from the point of view of a man who’d already fallen, whereas Chandor attempts it from the other side of the hill; his protagonist’s ascent to the apex of his chosen profession is legible as a projection of the filmmaker’s own skyscraping ambition. In this, Chandor flatters himself, and not only because he’s cast one of the most naturally magnetic young actors around as his manqué (one year after Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac remains a fascinatingly overcast screen presence). The true measure of Chandor’s self-regard is how he engineers the movie so that a character who has been entirely circumspect for the duration of the story finally has a moment that allows him to be implicated in the surrounding corruption—at which point the filmmaker nudges in to emphasize the resolute clarity of his own ethical gaze.

A Most Violent Year is a morality tale: we know this because Isaac’s character is actually named Abel Morales, surely the most strident moniker since the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist introduced himself as Changez. A self-proclaimed self-made man of some vague South or Central American heritage—as in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac projects a vivid but malleable ethnicity— Abel is looking to expand his oil-heater-supply business; as the film opens, he’s about to close a deal to buy a disused facility on the shores of the Hudson River, which will be his new base of operations. Like his Biblical namesake, Abel prides himself on having grown and tended his spread from the ground up. The implication in the script is that his competitors all carry the mark of Cain. They’re resentful of what this handsome upstart has and they’re going to try to take it by force. Abel’s trucks are being ripped off and his drivers are being beaten up on the job, and his refusal to offer them (unlicensed) handguns for protection is creating dissension in the ranks. Not to mention the fact that the bank fronting the money for the real estate transaction is getting antsy from news stories about broad-daylight armed robberies of their clients’ vehicles.

The dramatic tension in A Most Violent Year comes mostly from the possibility that Abel’s porcelain-doll wife, Anna (an atypically brittle Jessica Chastain, looking more like Nicole Kidman than ever), is going to call in the cavalry in the form of her famous-mobster father—an unseen figure whose reputation precedes him like a company of armed guards. In case we don’t get that Anna is packing some serious heat, Chandor contrives a scene where she and Abel drive over a deer on their way home and the little woman produces a gun from her purse to put the creature out of its misery while her husband dithers on whether or not to hit it with a crowbar. In a way, what Chandor has done is very clever: he’s created the basic outline of a gangster picture and then attempted to delay the arrival of the actual gangsters for as long as possible, using them as a kind of structuring absence. What keeps them pushed to the margins is Abel’s determination to succeed fairly, and, despite a few suggestions that his self-righteousness is misplaced in a business built on price gouging and deceptive supply-and-demand economics, the film and its characters mostly take him at his word. Even the D.A. (David Oyelowo) who’s leveling charges against his company for (allegedly) cooking their books seems pained to be inconveniencing such an obviously worthy individual.

Worthiness can be very boring to watch onscreen; worthiness under strain can be entertaining, and Isaac’s acting is impressively pressurized. He’s also a smart enough performer to give Abel a streak of thoroughbred-clotheshorse vanity—nicely abetted by the period-specific and flamboyant costume design—that works against his claims of humility. Gifted with a big, Oscar-bait scene in which Abel methodically explains to a trio of wide-eyed new recruits how to secure new customers—a rewrite of Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross monologue—Isaac finds just the right mix of superciliousness and a true believer’s sincerity— the same combination that buoys his entire performance. The problem is that the role is basically static; even when Abel actually chases down and confronts one of his rivals’ henchmen, gun in hand, the question of his ultimate action is never really in doubt. There’s none of the dynamism present in Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation from a wayward sensualist to an anguished hero cop in the similarly eighties-set We Own the Night, and the foot-chase set-piece lacks the choking terror of the car chase in Gray’s film—the gap between the two is the difference between saluting The French Connection and subsuming it into something distinctive and visionary.

When Chandor does finally try for a money shot of his own, it comes off as cheap: a too-painterly, spattered concrete canvas of blood and oil that challenges the upside-down American flag at the end of In the Valley of Elah for egregious, anguished symbolism. A Most Violent Year’s final scenes are its worst: they reveal that the plot’s sure-footed plodding hasn’t led anywhere unexpected, narratively or thematically. The ambivalent morality in the Godfather films, or for that matter, We Own the Night (which is basically a street-level riff on The Godfather Part II), is something that feels arrived at by the characters and the audience at the same time, whereas in A Most Violent Year, the people onscreen are always playing catch-up with the filmmaker’s foregone conclusions. Abel Morales suspects that he’s in a rotten business, and does his best to repress that fact; his reward for almost pulling it off is our respect, mixed with disappointment. Chandor, meanwhile, only countenances our respect, which won’t disappoint anybody—except perhaps those who are suspicious of such circumspect self-righteous strivers in the first place.