Published Apr 07, 2015J.C. Chandor was a rich kid. His father held senior roles with Merrill Lynch throughout his 40-year career and Chandor himself jumped into the real estate game at a young age, developing an $8.7m industrial building with some friends at 19. This financial endeavour failed, however.
This failure and his socio-economic disposition — a sheltered upper-middle-class kid that's been given everything he wants and was told he deserves it just for existing — very clearly influence his films. Margin Call glibly and superficially criticized the financial industry, dramatizing and exaggerating the disposition of an investment bank during the early moments of the financial crisis. All is Lost took a more admirable approach to the same themes, isolating Robert Redford in a sailboat in the Indian Ocean before pulling away his foundation and leaving him in a survival situation, taking the "sinking ship" metaphor very literally.
With A Most Violent Year, Chandor continues to hurl insults and accusations at successful people, reiterating a populist anti-greed ethos that's particularly palpable in Year's setting — and Chandor's home base — New York.
Taking place in 1981, a year when crime rates in New York skyrocketed and honest people fled to more rural locales, this American dream admonition details the trials and tribulations of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a small time oil magnate looking to expand his business. Initially, things seem great: he's poised to acquire an expansive facility that will facilitate the acquisition and storage of oil throughout turbulent economic times, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is fully supportive, managing the financial end of the business. But, just as he makes moves to secure this deal, his trucks are targeted for robberies, leaving him on the hook for stolen merchandise and leaving his teamster threatening to pull the drivers unless he equips them with guns. To make matters worse, the D.A. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on Abel and his business, charging him with fraud, tax evasion and an abundance of other thorny administrative faux pas.
The trajectory is as predictable as it is condescending. Abel is determined not to dip into the gangster life that Anna comes from and is eager to adopt. He tries to maintain ethical business dealings within an industry known for corruption and tries to handle the robbery situation without resorting to illegalities or violence. But, as is the standard for the endless litany of "greed is bad" movies popping up over the last decade, the only road to financial success is one paved with corruption and abject morality.
What works about this rather redundant tale of gangster beginnings are the performances and characterizations. Jessica Chastain's depiction of a lower class rich girl — the sort of woman that uses the word "classy" and has the money to buy expensive garments yet still manages to look cheap in them — used to using force or exploitation as a means to an end is mesmerizing. She embodies this archetype and successfully makes her motivations plausible. Similarly, Oscar Isaac manages to balance entitlement and superiority with an interesting lack of confidence and diffidence, trying to maintain his male ego despite being weaker than his larger than life wife.
What's less successful is the basic story. Since every plot machination is recycled from every other film within the genre, the experience of A Most Violent Year is mostly a waiting game; as an audience, we're waiting for Abel's morality to lead to his destruction or we're waiting for him to grey his ethical lexicon and give some of his competitors and taste of their own medicine. Chandor's approach to the material is loose but competent, which makes it watchable, if somewhat forgettable.
The biggest problem with this exercise in ego defence is how smug it is. Chandor has made a career out of wagging his finger at people that have achieved the American dream. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, since there is some validity to the point and some honesty in the broad assessment of corruption, but Chandor's stories are always simplistic; his perspective on the subject is so black and white and self-righteous that it's almost nauseating. It's as though his auteur vision is just a giant justification of his past failures, indirectly asserting that he didn't fail at real estate investing because he was incompetent; it's that the industry is corrupt and all successful people are monsters.
And while it's great to be above it all and wield morality as a weapon — if only for lack of having anything else to wield — it's also sort of immature and boring. If Chandor could learn to challenge his own assertions and muddy up his dialogue a bit, his basic capabilities as a storyteller could make him into the sort of director he desperately wants to be.
The Violent Year Blu-ray has an extensive array of special features, including a two-part "making of" featurette and a commentary track from Chandor. They cover most of the usual territory, featuring interviews with actors that have only wonderful things to say about each other and the director and interviews with the various members of the production team, such as the cinematographer, the producers and the costume designer. There's nothing overly insightful stated, but it is interesting to hear about how an independent filmmaker handles the challenges of filming a period piece in winter. It's also interesting to see that the costume designer is the most dishevelled and terribly dressed person involved in the production — why is this stereotype always the case?