Some directors are magicians. Far too many are technicians. J.C. Chandor is showing himself to be a teacher. Scorsese is a teacher. Soderbergh too. They want to frame their emotional stories around the mechanics of a certain thing. How a casino operates. How the CDC responds to a pandemic. In three lean movies, Chandor has given us survivalism seen through the lens of a financial crisis, personal discovery in the guise of boat maintenance and now, in A Most Violent Year (2014), moralism and ambition in the heating oil shipping business. Like the best storytellers, he has a way of making the specific seem universal and the mundane seem extraordinary. Here he makes a film that stalks you, hunts you down and affects you before you even knew it was close.
It’s the winter of 1981 in New York, at the height of the city’s corruption and violence, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the owner of a heating oil business, is about to make a deal that will put his enterprise into the big time. Suddenly, however, his shipping trucks are being ruthlessly attacked and hijacked for the oil they carry and worse still, an ambitious attorney (David Oyelowo) wants to make a show of investigating corruption by digging around Abel and his operation. Abel sees himself as the embodiment of the American Dream. An immigrant from Colombia, he has built himself and his company from nothing and has always done it in a way he could be proud of. He’s see the angles that no one else can, he’s the hungriest, he makes the most shrewd moves. Now, at the moment he’s closest to getting everything he wants, everything he has is most threatened. His drivers are panicking, his funders are spooked, his new home is terrorized.
A different movie would be about who or what is behind these attacks against Abel’s business, and the movie wrings a significant amount of tension from Abel’s investigation into what has gone wrong in Denmark. However, this is a quieter movie than that. The violence of the title is a violence inside Abel’s soul as he wrestles with his own morality. As his life crumbles around him, he is presented with the option to cut corners, bend the law, and give in to the corruption that has put him in this mess. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), certainly pushes him that way: her family’s money is what set Abel’s business up initially, money that might not have been earned in the most legal of manners. Anna expects a certain level of success. She’s attracted to ambition but she’s only satisfied by results. She does the numbers for the business and Abel doesn’t ask many questions, but he doesn’t like that their books have to be hidden when the DA’s office searches their home.
This is a taut movie, expertly paced by Chandor and driven by dual rhythms of dread, one that follows the noose around Abel’s neck and the other that follows Abel’s soul as it circles the drain. The tension is palpable when the viewer realizes that only one can be avoided, not both. Isaac isn’t channeling Lumet-era Pacino here, he’s doing an impression. He’s a bottled-up tiger, pleading to his better angels in a city full of devils. Chastain prowls around him like a lion, with a mane of tacky big coats and just a little more cleavage than the high-society she aspires to would approve of. Her Lady Macbeth by way of Gloria Grahame routine is at once demanding and flattering; we never doubt what Abel sees in her, even if we can recognize better than he does that she’s bad for him. Speaking of early Pacino, Abel’s quest for legitimacy resembles Michael’s in The Godfather (1972), except instead of Anna representing the righteous path he turned away from like Diane Keaton did, she is the force that keeps pulling him back in.
Chandor uses the complicated and unsexy dealings of the heating oil business and its various levels of distribution to frame his story. It’s not advisable to get held up on these details, as the script does a nice job of identifying what we’re really supposed to care about (though those details and hinted-at back stories and allegiances reward attentive viewing). The plot itself is just an excuse to keep piling up opposition against Abel and watch him try desperately to hold it back while moving forward at the same time. During his Sisyphean ordeal, we are never unaware of how easy it would be to for him to abandon his principles and get what he’s always wanted. We struggle while he struggles but we never lose the rooting interest that he won’t keep fighting to earn his dreams his way. When he caves, it’s so easy and matter of fact. Following a crackling confrontation between Abel and Anna, he reveals that he’s sold his soul while shaving. After defending it against all the slings and arrows, he has washed away his integrity like it was unused shaving cream. It’s like watching a man quit a diet. He knows he’s doing the wrong thing but he’s hungry and he wants cake.
Chandor has perfect confidence in his story; his restrained filmmaking delivers the information we need when we need it. He uses the cold snow and the dark spaces of offices and homes to tell his story of the cold and dark places inside Abel’s psyche. Abel spends so much time with his breath visible, it’s almost as if we are watching his soul seep out of him. Unlike the showy expressionism of Scorsese, we aren’t treated to virtuosic flourishes of craftsmanship, but we are given spare and lean images that pulsate with unseen tension. His impeccable restraint is not universal; we still have a leading character caught in a moral crisis with a first name that intones philosophical jealousy and a last name that literally has the word “moral” in it, and Chandor’s methodical mood setting is almost undone by a melodramatic ending that feels false. Still, this is refreshing American filmmaking, terse and muscular yet sensitive and thoughtful. It isn’t as clear cut as we’re used to, decisions aren’t always as much about right and wrong as we might like. There are decisions that are, as Abel says, “the most right.” Those are the only ones any of us can ever make.