Like the work of Bennett Miller, J.C. Chandor’s sexless, willfully understated dramas are threatened by a tendency toward oppressive symbolism. As Miller saddles his characters with funereal cadences and blunt physical tics (Brad Pitt’s maniacal chewing in Moneyball, Channing Tatum’s underbite in Foxcatcher), Chandor thrusts his characters into situations which highlight, italicize, and underline their own ethical and existential dilemmas. Robert Redford’s encounters with marine life and consumer detritus in All Is Lost remain a polarizing example, sure to be joined by the head-on collision of a deer and a Mercedes driven by Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year. But where Miller’s Foxcatcher transparently, numbingly favors broadsides about American values over the interiority of its characters, Chandor is doggedly persistent in prioritizing issues of individual agency throughout his parables about capitalism’s inherent moral corruption.
A Most Violent Year is, from the onset, soaked in an irony that juxtaposes economic progress and the decline of civilized society. The car radios of oversized sedans relay news of rape, murder, and random public stabbings in the New York City of 1981. Meanwhile, Morales meets his lawyer (Albert Brooks) to sign papers on a waterfront Brooklyn factory for his oil-distribution outfit, Standard Heating Co. “I woke up feeling very good about this,” Brooks’s Andrew Walsh says before the pair enter a murky trailer to put a down payment on the fuel yard. “Now that I’m all in, I’m loving it.” Morales hands over most of his savings for the cash deal, and awaits a bank loan to formalize the contract in 30 days.
The deal would all but ensure the rise of Standard Heating over a cadre of competitors engaged in a heated turf war. Morales’s workers, particularly an anxious young driver (Elyes Gabel), are beleaguered in the face of a series of brazen daylight hijackings, and the city’s ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating the industry for price fixing and other corrupt practices. Morales’s ascension is further imperiled by unrest at his new suburban glass-and-concrete home. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is both Standard Heating’s bookkeeper and the daughter of the mobster from whom Morales purchased the company. When she’s not chain-smoking and poring over company records with an adding machine, she’s urging Morales toward riskier business practices. After a thwarted home invasion, she buys a gun, and is one among many urging Morales to arm his fleet.
These heightened stakes and looming threats are laid out in a series of scenes beginning with characters saying “As you know,” but Chandor’s command of atmosphere and pacing compensates for some of his script’s clumsier exposition. A Most Violent Year’s tone is immediately tense and increasingly leaden with dread. Cinematographer Bradford Young films his conversations in dimly lit rooms, buffeted by bright hallways and exteriors. His city streets are arid, unquenched by warm, orange sunsets. The visual motif is a striking reflection of both Morales’s temperament and his moral dilemmas. Stubbornly opposed to outright deceit and criminal behavior, Morales can view his business and reputation from a cocoon of nobility. Outside forces prod that image, and Morales realizes that he’ll not only have to beg, borrow, and steal in order to make it in America, he’ll also have to get his hands dirty. His first confrontation with that reality comes with that injured deer on the road at night, and his second comes in a taut daytime chase by car, foot, and subway through the outer boroughs.
Chandor’s fondness for situational irony is empowered by the spartan efficiency of his method, and that of most of his performers. (Chastain’s Anna is a frustratingly mismanaged character, appearing in moments of outsized drama when it’s convenient to the narrative.) As Morales, a character of intriguingly indistinct upbringing and ethnicity, Isaac looks as if he’s been die-cast and transplanted from mid-career films by Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese. He delivers earnest, but nearly expressionless monologues about how to succeed in business and how to remain an honorable businessman, even as it becomes clear that the only way he can maintain his good name is through graft. In the tradition of Pacino’s Michael Corleone, Morales’s clear moral compass gives way to an intuitive knack for self-deceit, an ability to recalibrate that compass with minimal damage to his self-image. It’s a cold, compelling performance, focused entirely on the ethical dimensions of decision-making. A Most Violent Year asserts that action requires corruption, and its considerable suspense arises not from how to act, but whether to.