Oscar Isaac’s hair is the most violent effect in J.C. Chandor’s third movie. A salt and pepper pompadour beholden to a blow dryer, it’s a style for all seasons. In the first scene of A Most Violent Year, scored to (rather obviously) “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” it and Abel Morales drive through the unpeopled wastes of Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1981, when graffiti and hollowed out structures looked like an eternal part of New York life. He’s in the heating oil business while the feudal band of Jews and second tier mobsters are, he underscores, in the heating oil racket. The movie starts as Abel hovers at the point of getting all he wants: prime commercial real estate on the East River, a boring mansion in Westchester. But threats to his drivers keep coming. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), raised in Mob ways, wants to hit back; Abel though remains committed to staying straight. Then the law, in the form of an assistant DA (David Oyelowo), comse sniffing. With Abel facing three possible indictments, including listing unreported income, the bank loaning him the money for the deal gets the shakes. Abel’s got to get the money from someplace. This means approaching the people hat in hand whom Abel had taken pride in avoiding, like Peter (Alessandro Nivola), who’s closer to a yachtsman than a boss. Worrying on the margins is his lawyer (played by, of course, Albert Brooks, amusing until he says the anachronism “all in” early in the picture).
Isaac, the petulant star of Inside Lleweyn Davis, gives a performance of, if it’s possible, capacious modesty. Abel doesn’t raise his voice because he’s never had to. A combination of shrewdness and quiet determination has graced his career. He’s ill equipped to deal with the appearance of lurkers around the house or the sudden appearance of a pistol, found by one of his kids. “It’s YOUR kid playin’ with a loaded gun!” Anna yells. Smoking furiously and peeking disgustedly through Olivia Newton-John bangs, Chastain overplays the malice, and Chandor doesn’t help her cause by filming a scene in which Abel and Anna’s car runs into a deer and Anna puts a couple of bullets into its head to establish her bad ass credentials (Abel, naturally, is squeamish).
Suffused in the lemon-yellow light of winter mornings after newly fallen snow, A Most Violent Year could benefit from the judicious application of jumper cables. In its quiet, unobtrusive working out of its conflicts and sick-soul-of-the-boroughs malaise, it has more in common with James Gray’s early features like The Yards and Little Odessa than The Godfather comparisons too promiscuously hurled its way. And it’s got a novel conceit: the crime bosses go out of their way to avoid violence; Peter practically begs Abel not to borrow six hundred thousand, not even under Peter’s terms. But it’s a glum, shuttered movie, achieving mind-meld with Abel; it worries itself to death. When a foot chase appears late in the picture, it’s satisfying at first but adds nothing besides catching the moment when Abel says fuck it and resorts to violence, and making me wonder if his camel skin overcoat will get stained or wrinkled. He’s so self-contained that I couldn’t sympathize with his plight, and often the movie itself is as tightly sealed as a Tupperware container. Chandor’s script gives actors passages of impressive eloquence but is terse about exposition; you don’t have to keep on your toes so much as read a couple of synopses when the picture’s over to figure things out. Mere blemishes though had Chandor included a couple of scenes where Abel enjoys his growing wealth or relishes negotiating for its own sake. Better those than a too-pat-by-half moment when a shooting punctures one of Abel’s oil tanks, leading him to plug it with a handkerchief.
Yet it’s not often that an American movie with an awards season release is too sober for its own good. Given similar material David O. Russell would have lavished push button telephones with lustful closeups and set a Chastain freakout scene to Earth Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove.” If Margin Call, All is Lost, and A Most Violent Year are indicators, he’s got the mien of a Russian Orthodox priest. He hasn’t yet directed a movie that unleashes his full powers. Maybe he needs a script collaborator — Margin Call saddled Kevin Spacey with a dead dog, whereas All is Lost didn’t even give Robert Redford a name and good for him; the movie’s still his best. Maybe he needs a cinematographer not in thrall to pictorial portent, like Bradford Young’s shooting Anna and Abel in extreme long shot heaving boxfuls of files over the side of their house, basement rafters visible. Solemn and allergic to hysterics, A Most Violent Year seems to have been shot so that it levels off at “pretty good.”