J.C. Chandor's films exude a quiet confidence, and that self-assuredness is reflected in their characters. Though they deal in financial corruption, the men portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons in Margin Call always maintain impeccable professionalism. And despite his almost certain doom, Robert Redford's mariner in All Is Lost never loses his cool or forgets his pride.
For his third feature, Chandor offers us Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a hard-working immigrant battling the odds – and his social station – in New York City. Through persistence and discipline, he's become the head of the city's fastest-growing heating-oil business. But now he's facing his biggest challenge: the theft of his delivery trucks at gunpoint by thugs who don't even want the vehicles, just the heating oil. It seems fuel has become that valuable amid the economic cruelty of the Big Apple in 1981.
Adding even more fuel to his personal fire, he's struggling to close a real-estate deal that would give him an enormous competitive edge, he's at odds with a union boss (the thoroughly engaging Peter Gerety), and he's under 14 counts of indictment for financial fraud, though the charges are likely trumped up by a politically motivated assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo). Fighting by Abel's side are his tough-as-nails wife, Anna – played by Jessica Chastain in another in her seemingly endless string of successes – and his friend and lawyer, Andrew, portrayed by Albert Brooks, channeling a more sympathetic side of the darkness he embraced in Drive.
Belying its title, A Most Violent Year is surprisingly nonviolent. This is a story not of bloodshed, but of emotional brutality and the rat race in a world of urban and moral decay. To tell that tale, Chandor employs a subtle, slow-building tension, helped by atmospheric production design and cinematography. As with all of the writer-director's work, we believe what we see.
Despite these positives – and the Best Film award from the National Board of Review – the film is not as impactful as one would expect. While Isaac is again a revelation (in a 180-degree turn from the lovable loser of Inside Llewyn Davis), the characters seem a tad underdeveloped and kept at arm's length by a script that doesn't delve deeply into familial relationships and past events. And though the story is made richer by a subplot involving one of Abel's drivers (Elyes Gabel, in a tragic and nuanced turn), the methodical pacing, plot twists and aforementioned subtlety compromise the quality.
"We set the standard," Abel tells his employees. "Have some pride in what you do." And when asked why he doesn't just rent the property he's struggling to purchase, he coolly retorts, "I like to own the things I use."
Like his lead character, Chandor, too, is a man in control, a director who values accuracy, passion and intelligence. And though A Most Violent Year is not as consistently strong as his two previous films, it neither diminishes his art nor quells our enthusiasm for his next project, Deepwater Horizon.