Much of director J.C. Chandor's latest film, A Most Violent Year, lives up to its title. There's armed hijackings, masked gunmen setting upon an isolated house, and winding car chases. If that's not enough, it bears the indelible sheen of the films that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola tapped out during the '70s, where the sudden and brutal eruption of violence became an art form.
A Most Violent Year is set around that time too — the New York City of 1981 — when crime and inflation were at near all-time highs. At the center of such chaos presides Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) a Colombian immigrant who owns an oil and heating company that is no easy beast to wrangle. We never get to see Abel down in the trenches, but we know instantly from his stoic posture, dress-for-success flare, and steely intensity that he's done his time and earned his post — an assumption that folds back on itself as the story develops.
If there's one thing Abel is, it's serious — think Al Pacino in The Godfather saga kind of serious. When we first meet him, he and his sheepish attorney (Albert Brooks) are set to buy a fuel yard from a posse of elder Orthodox Jews. To seal the deal, which is irrevocable, Abel must secure millions through a legitimate outlet, and if he doesn't in the time allotted, he loses the millions he's put on the table. The details are a bit deeper than that, but Chandor again makes the complex, arcane nature of the normally elusive, informative and accessible, like he did with the financial drama Margin Call and the lost-at-sea nail biter All is Lost.
But that's just backdrop, A Most Violent Year is more squarely about the American Dream and the dirty little things successful people do to get ahead. Everyone likes a winner, but there's little affection for someone who cheats to get there, especially in the eyes of the government. That's one of many things that confront Abel in his effort to move up in society and business — his books aren't quite in order, and as a result, the bank is threatening to pull out and leave his entire fortune dangling in the wind. Then there's the ongoing plot by one of his competitors to hijack his delivery trucks. And when one of Abel's employees, a fellow countryman from Colombia (Elyes Gabel), fights back with force, his co-worker becomes the subject of a massive manhunt from the DA (David Oyelowo, Selma) and a growing PR problem.
The whole heating industry of the time as Chandor has painted it (he writes as well as directs) has more than a tint of shady mob interaction. Abel's ascent to own the fictional Standard Heating Company was a purchase from his father-in-law who has deep ties to the mob. Then there's the meeting of the oil company heads, which is not unlike the gathering of the dons in The Godfather, dark and cloistered and propelled by dicey rich language and veiled threats.
The real show-stopper, however, is Abel's wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who's nothing less than a hellacious incarnation of Michelle Pfiffer's moll from Scarface. It's the perfect role for Chastain to break out from her more muted and somber parts she played in The Tree of Life and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. The flashes we get of Anna are rich and nearly hyperbolic, but Chastain adds soulful depth and balance. Her chemistry with Isaac is edgy, yet steamy.
Chandor asks much of Isaac, and for the most part, the handsome up-and-comer who anchored Inside Llewyn Davis, delivers. But much of what sells us on Abel is his classic hardworking immigrant story. The true lynchpin of the film's success lies in the gritty cinematography of Bradford Young (Selma) and the impeccable set design and location setting. The dull washed-out industrial cityscape evokes something right out of a James Gray film (The Immigrant or The Yards); they loom large, making a statement about urban decay and those looking to profit from another's misfortune.
While Chandor too has leveraged the blood and sweat of other iconic filmmakers, harkening back initially feels egregious and somewhat overwhelming. But as the heat builds, A Most Violent Year becomes an elegiac homage that's something more and wholly fresh in its own right.