This is a guest post by JBFC Member and Film Blogger Albert Vieira
Director J.C. Chandor, who helmed Margin Call and All is Lost, furthers his artistic ambitions with his new film A Most Violent Year. The film is already awash in Oscar buzz and deservedly so; it is often intense and gritty and is a fearless examination of how our mythical notions about the American dream often ignore its less attractive qualities; opportunism, ethical and moral compromise and hypocritical, capitalistic piety. Not a trace of sentimentality or sunny, optimistic contraband infect the narrative. It is riveting and merciless in its depiction of the baser instincts and drives that motivate humans to not only survive but thrive. And just when you think the film just might grant the audience some surcease from its grim view of free enterprise struggle in early 1980s’ New York, it reminds us forcefully how a bloody toll can often be exacted from such ambition.
Abel Morales (a terrific Oscar Isaac), along with his wife Anna (one more superlative performance by Jessica Chastain) own and run Standard Oil, a Brooklyn-based company that is rapidly expanding its client base, which often means running afoul of competition. Abel, though hardly a new arrival to American shores, carries the weight of his immigrant status on his person like his tasteful suits.
Chandor expertly shepherds the story through its maddening convolutions. His fascinating characters and the authentic setting are so warmly conceived, one feels as if the film had sprung forth from 1970s’ American cinema, when films like The French Connection and Serpico showed a seamier, less romantic New York. The aesthetic prevalent in those films is very much alive in Chandor’s film: natural lighting, grimy backstreets and warehouses contrast strikingly with a city skyline (replete with the former Twin Towers) that seems hopelessly beyond the reach of his characters.
Sidney Lumet is being credited for his influence but William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola could share as much. Abel’s car chase with a hi-jacked truck and the subsequent foot-chase on a subway platform and train are but a few nods to The French Connection while a key meeting scene in the film and Abel’s Michael Corleone-like (minus the violent tendencies) control are an allusive nod to Coppola.
In spite of its tight, terrific plot, the fuel that propels the story are the performances. Isaac and Chastain are nothing less than mesmerizing while Albert Brooks seems to have found a new niche playing morally-dubious characters and he does it well. Alessandro Nivola and David Oyeloyo don’t skimp on their performances either in their supporting roles.
Chandor keeps the story moving and though the title suggests the film might be bloody, violence never really finds full flower, which is quite surprising; given our expectations.
It is very interesting that Chandor recognizes ethnic minorities as emerging economic and political forces in New York power-struggles. Abel’s business ambitions and Lawrence’s political aspirations represent the shift in New York’s sociopolitical make-up.
Chandor’s perspective on capitalism is decidedly cynical. Though Abel represents the best of a sordid lot, he is far from being a figure of unassailable probity. His “the result is never in question, just the path you take to get there,” is a euphemized the end justifies the means. He also tells the district attorney he chose the right path to his success; which is ambiguous at best. Note that he says right and not righteous. What is right for Abel isn’t necessarily ethical. But A Most Violent Year, like its great 1970s’ crime film pedigree, is too smart to believe the American Dream is a moral absolute. Chandor knows it sometimes sullies hands and bends character to its breaking point.
This is a masterful film, told with intelligence and precision. Chandor’s talent is beyond question. I hope his next cinematic venture is as absorbing as his latest. He is someone to keep our eyes on.
To read Albert’s full review (warning, contains spoilers!!), visit Al’s Omniflick.
A Most Violent Year opens at the JBFC on Friday, January 16. Tickets are on sale now!
Check out this clip from J.C. Chandor’s interview with Janet Maslin at a screening of A Most Violent Year on January 5 at the Burns.