What’s up with this J.C. Chandor guy? He seemed like a decent but fairly ignorable talent when his debut film, Margin Call, came out. That movie was well liked but no one was really praising it for its visual style, Chandor just kind of seemed like a screenwriter that somehow got the job directing his own script and I kind of just expected the guy to fade into the background of the film world but that hasn’t been the case at all. His follow-up film, All is Lost, felt like a conscious effort to be the opposite of a talky drama about economics. It was an ocean adventure that was nearly devoid of dialogue and only had one character. Had it not had the misfortune of coming out within a year of Life of Pi and Gravity it probably would have been a bigger splash and while it didn’t really light up the box office or win a ton of awards, it did prove that he was a director to watch even if it wasn’t entirely clear what kind of auteur he’s turn out to be. Now he’s come out with his third film, a crime film set in the early 1980s called A Most Violent Year, which seems to be his biggest shot across the bow yet, a sort of formal announcement that he wants to be here for good.
The titular violent year is 1981 and the place is New York City. Out protagonist is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a businessman who runs a heating oil business that has been making inroads in the industry and as the film opens he’s entered into a deal which will allow him purchase of a new facility in a month that will make him an even bigger force. As it turns out, this opportunity couldn’t have come to him in a worse month. Morales’ trucks have been getting hijacked by a pair of thieves and on top of that he’s been told that the district attorney is planning to file charges against him for various business practices. From there the film becomes a sort of procedural of what Morales needs to do in order to get through this month and the things he needs to do in order to put out the various fires that emerge along the way.
I can’t say I knew the heating oil business was a cesspool of corruption in the early 80s, actually coming from a place with natural gas infrastructure I barely knew heating oil was a thing. Here it’s depicted as an industry that’s so surrounded by corruption that it is almost impossible to be what Morales believes himself to be: an honest businessman. In the world of this film Morales’ competitors are willing to steal in order to get ahead of him, the teamsters he’s dependent on are willing to run around with illegal guns in order to protect themselves, and even the district attorney who’s supposed to be policing this stuff is ultimately willing to compromise himself for certain political favors. The one question mark is Morales and whether he’s really as honest as he says he is or whether he’s perhaps delusional about just how far his business has descended into the lawlessness he claims to hate.
The wildcard in the whole equation is probably Morales’ wife played by Jessica Chastain. She seems a lot more comfortable with the idea of her husband’s business being a criminal enterprise and generally gives off a Lady Macbeth vibe through the whole film. Oscar Isaac is also great in the film and for the first time in his career really seems like he has what it takes to break out of the character actor tier and really become something of a leading man/movie star of the Robert De Niro variety. The rest of the cast is filled with great East Coast talent and the whole film seems to really “get” the vibe of New York in the early 80s. The whole film has a fairly original milieu to work with and that make it feel pretty special. Also, despite the title it should probably be noted that this is not a particularly violent movie. There’s one really great chase scene towards the end but for the most part the film’s aggression is less overt and happens primarily behind the scenes.
There are a couple things holding the film back from the greatness it aspires to. In particular there’s one rather weak sub-plot involving a truck driver played by Elyes Gabel who goes on the run after engaging in a shootout with a pair of crooks who try to rob his truck. I know that New York has pretty strict gun laws, but this is still America we’re talking about, I don’t see someone being made into public enemy number one simply for defending himself against thugs trying to accost him. Quite the opposite, I could see someone like that being turned into a hero, especially given how public opinion tends to turn during crime waves. Also I found the way this plotline culminates to be contrived and rather ridiculous. Also, the film was lensed by a cinematographer named Bradford Young who also shot the movie Selma. I kind of hated the cinematography in that movie because the black levels seemed washed out and oddly gray. This movie has the same issue and it did annoy me but not as much, possibly because this movie has its roots in grainy 70s movies rather than epic prestige biopics.
So what did this film finally solidify an identity for this J.C. Chandor guy? Not exactly. If anything it probably just muddied the waters. His three films have been shot in very different styles and on a purely visual level I’m inclined to say that the guy just isn’t an auteur. However, there are certain themes that run through his work. Margin Call and A Most Violent Year are both ultimately movies about business and about the gray areas that are encountered therein. Then there’s All is Lost, which still seems like something of an outlier but which has occasionally been read as a sort of metaphor for one percenters finding themselves in over their heads out of a sort of sense of invincibility. The guy clearly has some really interesting ideas about society and he hasn’t made a bad movie yet, but I don’t know that I see him becoming a true master just the same. At the moment he still mostly fits the profile of a screenwriter who directs rather than a director who also screenwrites, which is a difficult distinction to spot but an important one. Hell of a movie though.
***1/2 out of Four