There are good reasons why so many of today's films are set in the 1970s and early '80s. Many filmmakers who grew up in that era have reached their prime and find themselves ready to explore personal and cultural roots. Recent American film school graduates likely cut their teeth on the "new Hollywood" directors from that era — a roster including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman — and continue to find inspiration in their free-spirited work.
Now on his third award-winning feature after a 15-year career in commercials, writer/director J.C Chandor (born 1973) mines that rich era once more with A Most Violent Year. Despite its title, and the fact that it's set in New York City in 1981 — statistically a peak year for violent crime in New York — this is no gangster movie in the traditional sense. It tells the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a Latin American immigrant struggling to expand a successful heating-oil business without taking part in the corruption and violence of his competitors. While A Most Violent Year does a remarkable job of conjuring a particular time and place, it finds its calling in portraying a nascent version of the moral and legal gray areas in which so many businesses operate. It's not much of a leap to the Wall Street and corporate America of today.
The walls start closing in on Morales as soon as he signs a purchase agreement on an additional facility for his business. Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Morales; Morales' drivers are being held up for heating oil, presumably by his competitors; the support of his bankers may be wavering; and someone is threatening his family. Morales wants to achieve the American dream through hard work and business acumen. But his tough-as-nails, Brooklyn-bred wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is more than willing to dive into those treacherous gray areas if it means protecting her family and livelihood.
Isaac broke through in 2013 as the star of Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis. As Morales, he crafts a complex and original character that's paradoxically earnest and streetwise. (Morales memorably instructs his young sales staff to succeed by telling the truth, a highly original tactic in business.) Oyelowo currently is gathering admirers for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and he shows great range here as the politically motivated Lawrence. But the story hinges on Chastain's blistering turn as the quietly ferocious Anna. Her natural chemistry with Isaac (they've been friends since college) drives the film as they become the most believably symbiotic big-screen couple in ages.
Chandor's secret weapon is cinematographer Bradford Young, who brought a rare sense of time and place to David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints as well as Selma. His panoramic images put the city at the center of Chandor's tale and allow the director to focus on character and dialogue to escalate the film's tension.
Released in New York and Los Angeles in time to qualify for the current awards season, A Most Violent Year won Best Film of 2014 from the National Board of Review but was passed over for Oscar nominations. Like many of last year's best films, it's currently scheduled to screen at a single theater in New Orleans for a limited time. Catch it while you can.