In little over three years and three features, writer-director J.C. Chandor has launched himself into the rare company of uncompromising filmmakers with more than superheroes on the brain. Margin Call (2011), filled with gloriously terse business talk, got him Oscar-nominated. All Is Lost (2013) had virtually no talk but managed to distill the loner essence of its star, Robert Redford, like no one had before. A Most Violent Year, Chandor’s absorbing no-bull NYC drama, further clarifies what might be the most promising career in American movies: an urban-headed filmmaker attuned to economies of place and time, with an eye on the vacant throne of Sidney Lumet.
Set in the chilly winter of 1981 (evoked with a minimum of perms and trench coats), the movie starts with a business deal, as Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, finely anxious), an independent gas-company owner, hopes to close with some Hasidim for a precious piece of waterfront property. He leaves the deal with 30 days to come up with an astronomical sum of money, and it’s right at that moment that his problems mushroom: A politically minded city attorney (David Oyelowo) starts breathing down his neck with aggressive financial queries; Abel’s Brooklyn-born wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a gangster, grows fidgety; and his gas trucks keep getting hijacked on the parkway.
The municipal stew is dense and unusually flavorful, of a kinship with James Gray’s The Yards and other films made for the last handful of adults who still go to theaters. An ambitious cast brings Chandor’s strained labor issues to life with utter believability—and
he still somehow finds time for a thrilling chase through an abandoned subway tunnel, Abel running down the source of his woes. If there’s a weakness here, it’s the skeletal relationship at the core of the story, between a proud immigrant and his blond, brassy wife who’s used to getting her way. Unintentionally, it feels a touch Scarface (and Alex Ebert’s synth score doesn’t help). But so many scenes percolate with a beautiful understatement that you can forgive this. Apparently, from all the posters and the title, we’re supposed to know that this scrappy Koch-era New York had it especially rough, but it’s almost incidental information, given a film with such bone-deep moxie.
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Cast and crew