J.C. Chandor, the young director who gave us Margin Call, the best movie about the inside workings of the Great Recession of 2008, has written and directed A Most Violent Year, a superb drama about what Eliot Spitzer has called “the baked in tendency to corruption” in business, the great difficulty of running an honest enterprise in a realm in which criminal challenges abound, challenges from strong arm tactics by competitors to temptations to commit sophisticated fraud. A Most Violent Year educates in the street smarts of business: you sense immediately that writer-director Chandor has struck through and far beyond the mask of commercials and the well-scrubbed commentary and pages of numbers in official oracles such as The Wall Street Journal and put you in the day-to-day life of the struggle of business. You eavesdrop on those crucial impromptu emergency meetings in conference rooms; those desperate phone calls about raising funds; those difficult announcements of crises to employees; and those confessional dialogs about the true nature of the enterprise.
This is compelling drama in Chandor’s hands; no question that he is becoming one of the most important directors in years. The major signs of his importance are his passion for dramatizing real problems in the Republic and his forswearing of shopworn Hollywood cliches. Experiencing Chandor’s movies is an exciting step up from the usual pandering to audiences. Here A Most Violent Year ranks with Margin Call (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) as a definitive movie about a generally hidden, if not invisible, crucial dynamic in America. Chandor is a serious historian as well as moviemaker, and he gives us revelatory art on many levels, literal to figurative. Better yet, he is no mere ideologue but shows a balanced concern.
The hero, young Abel Morales (Oscar Issac), lives up to his Biblical name as he pursues with a purity of heart the American Dream in striving to create a large and reputable heating oil company in New York City in the notoriously violent year of 1981. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), find the company trucks being hijacked, the drivers beaten, and the stolen oil sold to competitors. Abel refuses to arm his drivers despite pleas from many, including eventually the head of the local Teamsters, and plans to transcend the violence by making his company much bigger through a risky purchase and refurbishing of an inactive fuel oil terminal on the East River, a brilliant and daring move that will allow him to take deliveries efficiently from suppliers all over the world as well as permitting him to store oil during summers at a savings in purchase price. In the comprehensive realism we are beginning to expect in Chandor’s movies, Abel is not only battling violence and the lure of fraud; District Attorney Lawrence, ambitious and up-and-coming, is seeking to uncover corruption in the heating oil business, including Abel’s firm, and is coming after Abel’s company books.
The ensuing drama compels.
The acting is superb and the pacing arresting. Jessica Chastain is a phenomenal actress; she is emerging as one of the very best of her generation; like Meryl Streep, she seems able to play many different characters with ease. Albert Brooks, not cast nearly often enough, is perfect as Abel’s lawyer. Oscar Issac, a new face, captivates from beginning to end as Abel. Further, the settings are stunningly accurate for the period. The mansions that up-and-coming entrepreneurs such as Abel buy are imposing but not yet grandly furnished in this era of monster mortgages. A birthday party at Abel and Anna’s mansion is uncanny as to the clothes, diversity of the guests, activities, and banter. Here Chandor reminds of Hitchcock and Spielberg respectively in their careful recording for posterity of British aristocratic country life (e.g., The Paradine Case) and American middle class life in the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.).