Still early in his career, director J.C. Chandor has cemented his status as a filmmaker to watch. So far he’s already made three excellent — and wildly different — films: From his debut with the financial thriller “Margin Call” (which nabbed him an Oscar nomination for writing), to the nearly dialogue-free survival drama, “All is Lost,” Chandor has demonstrated a chameleonic versatility that allows him to adapt to seemingly any type of material. His latest film, “A Most Violent Year,” is a thoughtful, low-key morality play centered around the desperate measures it takes to get ahead in a corrupt world.
Set in New York City during the winter of 1981, the film follows ambitious businessman Abel Morales (a restrained Oscar Isaac, channeling early Pacino), the owner and operator of a successful heating oil company, who’s looking to take his operation to the next level. A man of strict moral codes, he fights to keep his business legitimate despite operating in a world that constantly threatens to make that impossible; Abel’s truck drivers are being hijacked and their cargo stolen. The perpetrators are unknown, though his competitors remain curiously silent. His mob princess wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, in a livewire performance), is threatening to get her family involved. Gifted with a shrewd business sense, she’s willing to make the sort of ruthless decisions Abel can’t or won’t. Meanwhile, a D.A., played by David Oyelowo (giving another great performance after his magnificent work in “Selma”) is conducting an industry-wide investigation meant to clean up the corruption and illegal dealings that run rampant. Slowly, he narrows his focus onto Abel and his company.
The film is deliberately paced, and I’ve heard complaints that this makes for less than thrilling viewing; it held me in its grip all the way through. It’s admittedly a slow burn, but the bursts of action — including a chase sequence and a tense home invasion — are beautifully staged.
It also features typically gorgeous work from cinematographer Bradford Young, who photographs the period detail in lovely, richly shadowed compositions.
“A Most Violent Year” should have been an Oscar contender, but sadly was completely overlooked when nominations were announced. The film takes clear inspiration from the works of Sidney Lumet -- concentrating on gritty tales of warped ambition -- even if Chandor’s script is occasionally too blatant in spelling out its themes. Though he’s a good man at heart, Abel finds himself wading into murky moral waters to keep his business afloat. It’s a quietly powerful reminder that it’s the small compromises that end up costing your soul.