Published Jan 29, 2015J. C. Chandor really wants to make the "Great American Film." It's been clear since his 2011 debut, Margin Call, which tackled the 2008 collapse of the housing market and played like a lesser David Mamet script, with smart people dropping profanities amidst complex discussions about systems of power. That film aped the high-stakes New York dramas of Sidney Lumet without having much to say about where we are today. Similarly, 2013's All Is Lost was his attempt at fusing the defeated machismo of a Hemingway short story with the spirituality of Terrence Malick, his one-man show with Robert Redford that played like Gravity on the high seas.
While that film was a big improvement on his debut, Chandor's primary fault is still his incessant genre-worshipping, which makes him seemingly unable to produce something with what feels like his own voice. He's too indebted to the greats to make a film that feels like anything other than a greatest hits of what's come before him. While lots of the best directors today had similar roots (paging Paul Thomas Anderson circa 1997), Chandor's charms are much more low-key. A classic dramatist at heart who excels at crafting pressure-cooked microcosms in which people are challenged by institutions, Chandor often undermines himself by his need to evoke what's come before him, a sort of "if the boot fits" style of filmmaking that betrays his strengths at every turn.
Chandor's latest film, A Most Violent Year, is a good example of what makes him a compelling filmmaker but, with his third film in as many years, ends up laying all his cards on the table, revealing his faults to ultimately be his modus operandi: these stylistic tics aren't going anywhere. In that respect, A Most Violent Year feels like a safe film, a Francis Ford Coppola homage in the style of The Godfather that features terrific performances and a tight script that never quite lives up to its potential.
At the centre of it all is Abel Morales, played with a measured intensity by Oscar Isaac. Abel runs a small home heating company with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and the pair are hoping to expand their business while avoiding falling in with the Mafia like their competitors. At the start of the film, Abel secures a deal to purchase a larger space where their business can grow to the next level, provided they can come up with the money by the end of the month. From start to finish, Chandor cranks the tension up as far as it can go, as Abel and Anna are forced to withstand attempted mob hits, financial setbacks and a D.A. (played by David Oyelowo) investigating their business. Facing pressure from all sides, Abel and Anna are forced to make moral compromises to secure the deal, as Abel tries with increasing desperation to maintain peace between his company and the mob (a difficult task, as his truck drivers are robbed on a regular basis).
Chastain is on fire here, evoking Lady MacBeth with a ferocious intensity, never afraid to make the big gesture and criticize Abel for his even-footedness. Chandor's script is careful not to render Anna too broad, and understands her equal role in the business. Isaac is terrific as usual, perhaps laying on his determined but soft-spoken Michael Corleone impersonation a little too well. Abel has vaulting ambition to spare, but is too cautious on his decisions, and Isaac makes sure we understand the weight he places on every decision in the film, inviting us inside his head. This is miles away from his career-best turn in 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis, and shows off his range, making him one of the more exciting actors today.
Chandor keeps the drama chugging along evenly, making it all the more frustrating when the film fizzles out in the final act. It all seems to be building to something, but whatever hopes A Most Violent Year has in being a Great American Film seem to fall apart, landing with more of a shrug than the powerhouse landing it hopes for. Here, though, a thematic motif seems to emerge in Chandor's growing filmography, one that has grown more complex and thematically diverse as he's progressed: the mapping and intricate structuring of the dynamics of power in a micro-environment.
From the financial housing market and the various hierarchies of Margin Call to the small sailboat and the way all of its pieces interact with each other in All Is Lost, to the ins and outs of the home heating market and their relationships with organized crime in A Most Violent Year, Chandor is seemingly fascinated by creating Rube Goldberg machines as films, showing us how every part works and how chaos emerges when one piece falls out of order. It's too bad he has to drape it all in another filmmaker's clothes — A Most Violent Year resembles too strongly the shadow-drenched tableaus of The Godfather trilogy.
Chandor has a keen eye for drama and escalating tension, but shoots himself in the foot over and over again by not going big, by not stepping outside his comfort zone. In spite of all of this, he has to be commended for proceeding with the best of intentions. With A Most Violent Year, it's clear Chandor is a hungry filmmaker, jumping from genre to genre with abandon, trying on different outfits to see what works and trying to establish himself as a chameleon, even though he hasn't landed the right approach quite yet.