J.C. Chandor is the most unpredictable young filmmaker in America. Not even Paul Thomas Anderson or Bennett Miller can quite match him there.
When Chandor made “Margin Call,” he created the definitive American movie about 21st century stock market corruption. And then, astonishingly, his next film, “All Is Lost,” starred Robert Redford alone in a virtually wordless film as a man struggling to stay afloat and alive in his sailboat during one of the most terrifying ocean storms ever seen on screen. Its title alone was practically a bird flipped to movie money-types and their box office expectations.
And now Chandor brings us “A Most Violent Year,” the most absorbing film you’re ever likely to see about the ambitions of a would-be tycoon in the heating oil business.
Snort and hoot at your peril. This is a good movie in every way.
Chandor’s “most violent year” is 1981, when things in New York City and environs were significantly slovenly and lawless. His ambitious businessman is Abel Morales, a buttoned-up suburban business owner in a Mercedes and camel hair coat whose beautiful wife is a mob princess. She watches her husband’s maneuvering to make it to the American Dream in the American Way, but she’s always over to the side tapping an impatient foot and offering her family’s indelicate aid in case serious dirty work needs to be done for the cause.
What is so impressive about “A Most Violent Year” is that it’s actually reminiscent of the films of one of the two greatest of urban American film masters, the late and utterly inimitable Sidney Lumet. The other urban maestro of the last half century, of course, is Martin Scorsese.
If you thought that Lumet’s death foreclosed forever the possibility of seeing his kind of irascible, gritty and conniving urban micro-realism, you need to see what Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” has to say on the subject. It’s as if Lumet and Arthur Miller collaborated on a 21st century urban action thriller.
Chandor’s would-be suburban tycoon, Abel, is played by Oscar Isaac, who seemed to bring out a whole new color to the Coen Brothers in their terrific film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Isaac is the kind of protean, multifaceted actor we need in the movies. On the basis of just two major films now, he seems to be able to play almost anything – and without corny theatricality, either.
In the chaotic New York City climate of 1981, Abel’s competition keeps jacking his trucks and draining his business. He’s sick of it. His wife – played by the gorgeous and redoubtable Jessica Chastain – is even sicker.
His lawyer and business-world rabbi is played by Albert Brooks in a role I never thought anyone would offer him, much less one I ever expected to see him accept. He’s as weirdly welcome here as he was all those years ago playing Cybill Sheperd’s woo-er in “Taxi Driver.”
If Abel can fight off his undermining truck-jackers – he first has to figure out who they are – he can fulfill his plan to buy a juicy piece of waterfront property owned by some wary orthodox Jews (led by Jerry Adler), who are cautious enough to want their seven-figure asking price for the land delivered in cash.
What we watch in the movie is Abel under attack from all sides – unions, criminals, business associates, even his own wife.
It is this movie’s distinctly perverse wisdom that “you will never do anything as hard as looking someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.”
How long will Abel be able to fend off his wife’s idea of a solution to his problems? How long will he be able to deflect his Teamsters drivers, who are pushing to be armed so they can properly fight off hijackers – especially when his wife isn’t averse to packing heat and proving how proficient she is with it?
You wouldn’t think the heating oil business promised urban chase scenes as exciting as those in this movie.
Unless, of course, you realize that at this stage of his career, Chandor, very much like his star, seems to be completely convincing doing almost anything.
Heaven only knows what Chandor will do next. Only a fool would try to guess.
"A Most Violent Year"
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Jerry Adler.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Running time: 125 minutes.
Rating: R for language and violence.
The Lowdown: An ambitious businessman and his calculating wife want to expand their family heating oil business while everyone else wants to stop them.