When “New York, New York” lyricist Fred Ebb wrote that immortal line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” it’s doubtful he imagined the life-or-death stakes such sentiments take on in “A Most Violent Year,” an ’80s-era NYC crime drama in which just making it from one day to the next seems like a major accomplishment. In his third turn behind the camera, writer-director J.C. Chandor has delivered a tough, gritty, richly atmospheric thriller that lacks some of the formal razzle-dazzle of his solo seafaring epic, “All Is Lost,” but makes up for it with an impressively sustained low-boil tension and the skillful navigating of a complex plot (at least up until a wholly unnecessary last-minute twist). Like last fall’s “Out of the Furnace,” this solid, grown-up movie-movie is almost certainly too dark and moody to connect with a broad mainstream public or make major awards-season waves, but it does much to confirm Chandor as a formidable filmmaking talent, and star Oscar Isaac as one of the essential American actors of the moment. A24 opens the pic in limited release Dec. 31.
If Chandor’s promising 2011 debut, “Margin Call,” could loosely be described as a Wall Street transposition of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “A Most Violent Year” seems to have been steeped overnight in a solution equal parts Sidney Lumet and Lumet’s consummate latter-day reinterpreter, James Gray. The setting is 1981, the year of Lumet’s masterful police corruption drama “Prince of the City,” and it’s possible to see a continuity between that movie’s naive whistleblower cop (played by Treat Williams) and Isaac’s upstart businessman here — two virtuous crusaders who put too much trust in fundamentally broken systems. Chandor’s film bears an even stronger likeness, though, to Gray’s little-seen sophomore feature, “The Yards” (2000), which built a similar tale of ambition, free enterprise and moral compromise around an essential Big Apple industry: there, subway parts; here, heating oil. (Indeed, Chandor’s film could easily have been called “The Fuel Yards.”)
But if “A Most Violent Year” hits many familiar notes, it does so in an unusually gripping and effective fashion, pulling you deeper and deeper into the struggles of a young heating-company boss trying to make inroads in an industry dominated by generations-old family businesses (which operate rather like a certain other “family” business). None of this is news to Isaac’s Abel Morales, who started out as a lowly truck driver himself, but somewhere along the way fell in love with the boss’ daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and bought the business from him. And while Anna’s dad was all mobbed up, Abel prizes squeaky-clean transparency.
With the conviction common to the self-made, the born-again and other fanatics, Abel prides himself on forward movement through society’s real and perceived barriers, having shed all but the slightest traces of his immigrant heritage, built his family a sprawling suburban McMansion, and developed strategies for routing the competition with a minimum of dirty tricks. In a striking, Mamet-esque early scene, he coaches a new crop of sales associates on how to make a first impression: Keep eye contact for longer than feels comfortable; ask for tea instead of coffee (the classier option); always be the model of tact and decorum. “We’re never going to be the cheapest,” he advises, “so we have to be the best.”
When the movie opens, it’s clear that Abel’s success mantra doesn’t sit so well with one or more of his fellow oil merchants. While the city at large panics from an all-time-high crime rate (the impetus for Chandor’s title), Abel’s Standard Heating Co. finds itself engulfed in its own brutal turf war, with drivers — and eventually, even sales reps — robbed at gunpoint, beaten, shot at, or all of the above. Even Abel’s own family isn’t safe from harm, as a late-night gun-wielding prowler proves early on. And the timing couldn’t be worse, just as Abel is starting escrow on a long-abandoned waterfront fuel yard that will put him in a real position to corner the market, and a young district attorney (a typically excellent David Oyelowo) launches a massive investigation into heating-industry malfeasance.
Chandor lays out all of this briskly and confidently, always giving just enough information to keep the viewer hooked, while maintaining a certain intentional opacity, the feeling that we’re entering a hermetic world of private codes and backroom dealings that even Abel himself hasn’t fully cracked. The pacing is deliberate yet uneasy, like a slowly tightening noose, with scenes staged mostly in long, wide master shots with a minimum of cutting. But when Chandor feels it’s warranted, he turns up the heat, including a tense shootout on the 59th Street Bridge, and an utterly terrific chase sequence that begins by car, transitions to foot, and ends on an elevated B train hurtling through the outer boroughs. Which makes it all the more disappointing on those rare occasions that Chandor overplays his hand, mostly in a subplot having to do with a panicked young Standard driver (Elyes Gabel) who goes on the lam after his second violent truckjacking.
“A Most Violent Year” may not ultimately tell us anything new about big-city corruption, thwarted idealism and the steep price of admission to the American dream. But it says those things with a kind of conviction that reminds you why ambitious hustlers like Abel Morales keep striving for their imagined piece of the pie against very inhospitable odds. Isaac is marvelous to watch here, playing a character who could give Llewyn Davis a crash course in how to win friends and influence people. We first see Abel going for a vigorous morning jog, and that’s fitting because, for Abel, to take a single step backward in life is a fate worse than death. And Isaac pours that stubborn resolve into every inch of the performance, from his slightly formal, affected speech patterns to his rigid, ramrod-straight posture; he’s like a Horatio Alger hero on steroids.
In most of her roles to date, Chastain has been the ballsy, forward-pushing dynamo, and “A Most Violent Year” is no real exception. Though she’s not quite as well served as Isaac by the script, her Anna is around long enough for us to see that she’s every inch her father’s daughter, and far less religious than Abel when it comes to playing by the rules.
As in “Margin Call,” Chandor has fleshed out the extensive supporting cast with the kind of veteran character actors who seem to bring a lifetime of experience with them when they enter the frame: Albert Brooks, wonderfully weary and resigned as Abel’s in-house lawyer; Alessandro Nivola as the courtliest of Abel’s competitors, practicing his backhand both on and off his Gatsby-sized indoor tennis court; and Jerry Adler (“The Sopranos’” Hesh) as the Orthodox Jewish landlord who holds the deed on Abel’s future.
The movie is also a triumph of subtle period craftsmanship on almost every level, especially the work of production designer John P. Goldsmith, who has a field day with long-bodied Cadillac coupes and diesel Mercedes, metallic desks and filing cabinets; costume designer Kasia Walicka Mamone, applying bounteous earth tones (with Chastain outfitted by Giorgio Armani); and the great cinematographer Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), whose widescreen images are retro without ever verging on kitsch, with ungentrified Gotham locations bathed in a crisp winter’s light and swirls of indoor cigarette smoke.