Filmmaker J.C. Chandor skewers the American dream

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


poster-violentyearA Most Violent Year
Galaxy Cinemas
4 out of 5

One of this year’s least talked-about but most egregious Oscar snubs is A Most Violent Year. It’s a master class in substantive filmmaking. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s story of an immigrant striving for higher ground simultaneously serves as a study of masculinity in modern times, even though the film is set in 1981.

Pre-Giuliani New York was a nightmare. Crime was at an all-time high, corruption was rampant and the city seemed to be rotting from the inside out. Even so, the Morales family seems to be thriving. Abel (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewelyn Davis) is an immigrant who’s done well for himself, and he’s about to close a real estate deal that could make his heating oil distribution company even more successful.

The business world Abel inhabits is thoroughly corrupt, but he prides himself on running a clean operation — in spite of being married to a mafia princess (a wonderful Jessica Chastain) whose solution to any problem is to call her dad. An assault on one of his trucks places Abel at odds with less scrupulous competitors, an overzealous prosecutor (David Oyelowo, Selma) and even his own wife, who’s nursing a Lady Macbeth complex. All of this in the middle of a make-or-break deal.

Despite the setup, A Most Violent Year isn’t a morality play: Abel’s stance has less to do with ethics and more with executing a smart business model. (Idealism is a liability, we learn.) A constant feeling of danger underscores every action, adding a layer of distress to an already bristling storyline.

A good point of comparison for A Most Violent Year is the objectionable smash hit American Sniper. In Sniper, Chris Kyle finds his moral compass in the protection of his fellow soldiers. The only way he believes he can answer the call is by eliminating the enemy with extreme prejudice. Abel isn’t nearly as simple: he perceives alternatives, and he can also foresee consequences. His options may be baffling and he may appear emasculated on a regular basis, but Abel sticks to his plan — other people’s opinions be damned. Kyle is perhaps more macho, but Abel is the real man in this comparison.

J.C. Chandor is a tremendously interesting new director who’s just getting started. His first feature (Margin Call) relied heavily on dialogue, while his follow-up (All Is Lost) hardly had any talking. A Most Violent Year digs into emotional complexity and cinematography as language, which were previously seen as Chandor’s weak spots. It’s great to see a filmmaker self-aware enough to identify his shortcomings and work through them publicly.

Chandor is also a superb actors’ director. Jessica Chastain takes her inner femme fatale for a spin and leaves an impression, while Isaac is a leading man in the making — a tightly coiled spring who keeps you on your toes, even though he seldom goes off. His relationship with his lawyer (Albert Brooks, killing it) is reminiscent of that between Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen, and it’s not far-fetched to identify The Godfather Part II as a source of inspiration for the film.

The ending might initially feel like a cop-out, but it’s absolutely not. It just highlights the fallacy at the heart of the American dream, pointing out that one person’s triumph must necessarily be another’s defeat.