JC Chandor’s third film in four years, and possibly his best, firmly establishes him as a leading voice for a new generation of gifted filmmakers taking up the history of classic cinema and creating the future out of the past. His three films, a dialogue-heavy corporate thriller, a dialogue-free survival parable knowing desperation as well as quiet agony, and now a tone poem to a city in the guise of a ’70s-styled crime thriller, all owe an equal amount to the nervy, alert grit of ’70s cinema and add on a modernist, even impressionist edge to focus more on space and abstract mood to go with the concrete grime of his films’ physicality.
Certainly, he seems heading even further in this direction, confident here (as he was in his previous film) with moving away from the crutch of dialogue that somewhat hindered his debut directorial effort. His trek is all the more exciting because he hasn’t yet developed a narrative singularity, or even a commonality of tone. His films are joined by a focus on process as a means to define character, but they do not necessarily feel like the work of one director. If he is an auteur, he rejects the defeating sense of personal sameness and stuffy inflexibility so often prone to directors who stick to one style and theme without fail. He’s an invigorating breath of fresh air, a director ready to tackle anything with verve, panache, physicality, and poetry.
For his third film, he finds that poetry in Abel and Anna Morales (Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain), two rising New York owners of a heating fuel company sweating, breathing, and fighting back the desire to do anything, bar morals, to act in their favor in one of the worst recorded years of crime in American history. Caught up in difficulties both personal and political, they are left without option but to collect one and a half million dollars from whoever they can find. All the while, someone is stealing fuel from them, and the ghost of Anna’s father, who built the company on corruption and crime, only exacerbates the present threat of corruption forever dawning on them, weighing thm down, and begging them to resort to the company’s tempting old ways.
Chandor’s film is not a work of plot but of mood and feel. Unlike so many films set in this time period, and fitting Chandor’s impressionist ways, human antagonists matter less than the raw coercive limbo of the city itself. He paints the New York of 1981 with a plaintive grit we seldom see these days; it is a note-perfect encapsulation of a crippling, empty space that exists not only in raw geometry but in the mind of its inhabitants. His style is slow-growing, sinister, and seductive, focusing on wide empty spaces that dwarf his characters and haunt their every being. Even when things pick up in the film’s second half, the quiet haunt of the work holds true till the end. In the very final moments, when things have seemingly wrapped up with an unearned optimism, the muted colors of a drained city dwarfing the protagonists in the final image of the film tell a different story. They remind that, while Abel has avoided permanent loss for this episode, the overpowering dearth of a city on the edge of itself holds truer and stronger than any one person can handle, and that city, and its violence, isn’t about to forget Abel for too long.
The MVP of this visual style, and the whole cloth of the film for that matter, is the recently hungry Bradford Young, a young cinematographer capturing the emotional rapture of social plight that half lingers in the mind’s of many and distilling this memory on camera for a world not as far removed from this sort of urban woe as we might think (it simply effects a more specific, forgotten, non-white populace these days). With Selma and this film released within a month of each year, the past month has been a big coming out for a man who may be the most exciting young cinematographer to emerge on the scene in a decade. He’s an even greater breath of fresh air because he hasn’t yet distilled his style, instead adapting to the needs of the film and displaying a remarkable flexibility in understanding and toying with place and space. His work feel alert and alive, attuned to the needs of a specific scene and not dogmatically caught up in any one style (a perfect match for Chandor at that), and his work here breathes in the spaces between realism and impressionism and finds a home of both but not fathered by either. His lighting, in particular, is impeccable, granting the work an allure of mist that segments it off in the past without ever sacrificing the vitality and liveliness of the piece.
As an actor’s piece, and at some level any self-conscious reflection of ’70s filmmaking is something of an actor’s piece, there’s nothing to say against the film. The showpiece performance is the catastrophic Oscar Isaac, earning the film’s position as one more peg on his immanent rise to the top of the American acting landscape. It’s a grueling performance, sweaty and nervy, but it is never once showy, nor does it gruel because of how much Isaac gives us. Rather, it’s a decidedly poignant work of restraint, a bit of soul-gazing where we see every inch of Abel confused and under-confident, torn and beaten, and resolved to hold himself back from his darker impulses. Chandor often uses him as he’s tended to use actors in the past – as positions in his geographic frame – and Isaac absolutely understands this impulse, letting the destruction of the city he lives in fall onto him and wait, ever wanting, festering inside and hurting to burst free. Jessica Chastain, likewise the best female performer to rise in the past few years, isn’t given nearly as much to do, but as an empowered woman who often takes agency for her family when Abel will not, shes startling and brittle, and always quietly angry as she makes the most of what is functionally a small role.
At some level, one is prone to refer to Chandor’s film as workmanlike, for every element bleeds fully into the whole and none are notably ostentatious. It is undeniably a work of craft rather than art in the conventional sense of the term, but it gives craft the best possible name. The work does not have the weighty ambitions of a big end of year prestige picture, nor a challenging, formally revolutionary art-house piece. Fittingly, it occupies a genre almost unseen since the ’70s: mature, thoughtful entertainment, well composed and crafted, looking simply to exist in its own gritty state and work efficiently and rambunctiously until the end. That is an effect Chandor achieves, allotting the film the well-oiled machine quality he’s given to his two previous features.
For this, more than anything, we should thank him. He’s a unique voice in the modern world not because he pushes film into the future, but because he so capably pays homage to the past at a level of raw film construction and structure. If every year of the 1970s saw a dozen features of this quality and for these reasons, the fact remains that we don’t see this sort of film done with this level of skill these days. In 1981, A Most Violent Year may have been just another really whip-smart, crackling genre piece, but in 2014, it is something special, and something to cherish.