‘A Most Violent Year’ Review: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac Chase the American Dream, by Hook or by Crook

With his third feature film, J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost”) firmly plants himself among this generation’s great filmmakers

One good movie can be a fluke, and two can represent the fulfillment of early promise. Three thoughtful, provocative films in a row, however, demand that attention be paid. And “A Most Violent Year” heralds J.C. Chandor as one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today, particularly because his three films couldn’t be more different.

With his debut, “Margin Call,” he took us inside the inner workings of Wall Street 2008, showing us the looks on the faces of the Masters of the Universe as they realized, scant hours beforehand, that their entire financial empire was on the verge of total collapse. The brilliant and underseen “All Is Lost” was as quiet and solitary as “Margin Call” had been packed with dialogue and characters, allowing Robert Redford an unforgettable late-career performance as a stranded yachtsman fighting to survive.

Now Chandor returns with “A Most Violent Year,” which debuted as the Opening Night Gala of the AFI Fest, and while it, too, focuses on desperate characters doing what it takes to stay afloat, the film’s tone and look couldn’t be more different than the director’s previous films.

Set in 1981, a 12-month period of record-breaking brutality in New York City, “A Most Violent Year” follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) through an exceptionally tense 30 days. The owner of a heating-oil company, Abel has sunk everything into a deposit on a waterfront storage facility. He’s got one month to pay the balance, and if he doesn’t, he loses both the property and the deposit. Making matters worse is the fact that a rival outfit is hijacking his trucks and stealing their cargo.

a-most-violent-yearAbel, it bears noting, is no innocent; his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) comes from a family of organized crime figures (she often suggests/threatens to involve her father or brothers when she feels cornered), and Abel’s business has been under investigation for years by hard-nosed district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, “Lee Daniels‘ The Butler”), who seems to be close to putting together a substantial case.

The film’s Reagan-era setting gives it a look that couldn’t be more different from the irrational exuberance of “American Hustle” — Abel and his family move into a Brutalist cube of a suburban mansion under slate-grey skies; he wears turtlenecks under boxy double-breasted suits under a camel overcoat that’s a few shades away from being Warren Beatty‘s bright yellow “Dick Tracy” trench; Anna has Linda Evans “Dynasty” hair and wears those awful early-’80s women’s blouses with the sad, drooping neck adornments.

Don’t let Anna’s placid demeanor fool you, however — as portrayed by Chastain, she’s ferocious and driven, ready to stand up to anyone or anything who threatens her family or the company’s well-being. We’ve seen this kind of mobster Lady Macbeth before, but Chastain never overdoes it with the snarling or the scenery-chewing. She’s tough and she’s smart and she brooks no outside interference, but she’s also a loving, pragmatic wife, never a mere gorgon.

As he did in “Llewyn Davis,” Isaac gives life to a character who could play too passively in the hands of another actor. Abel doesn’t want to arm his drivers, fearing that they’ll shoot an innocent bystander, and he believes in a certain degree of business ethics, even as he’s cooking the books and working to undermine his competitors. As portrayed by Isaac, however, Abel’s relative nobility is never boring, and the actor ever so delicately unravels the character’s many layers.

Isaac keeps us guessing as to Abel’s intentions and his strategies, and it matches the unpredictability of “A Most Violent Year” itself. Just when we’re settling into the film being a Lumet-ian character-driven portrait of ambitious connivers, Chandor will, on more than one occasion, organically segue to an adrenaline-packed truck chase that’s as exciting as any big action-movie moment of recent memory.

His skill at weaving together thrills and serious drama (with the assistance of editor Ron Patane, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) represents just one facet of the cinematic mastery Chandor displays here. The pacing, the performances (Albert Brooks is a stand-out as Abel’s lawyer), and every facet of the production serves the story and the film’s larger ideas.

Corruption and chicanery infuses this entire world, from flunkies to bankers to politicians, like water in an aquarium. What it all comes down to, the film suggests, is how well you can swim.