The third movie from J.C. Chandor stars Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and a luxurious full-length men's camel-hair coat. The coat is worn by Isaac's character, Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman pursuing the American dream in New York in 1981. Chastain plays his wife, Anna, the daughter of a small-time Brooklyn gangster who sold Abel the successful furnace-oil delivery business which he now runs. That coat, too prominent to be considered just a wardrobe accessory, also serves as a movie echo: Al Pacino wore a similar coat in The Godfather: Part II, a gangster's costume of respectability.
Chandor, the 41-year-old director whose earlier career was in commercials, made a splash in 2011 with the insider-trading thriller Margin Call. That was followed in 2013 by the minimalist shipwreck drama with Robert Redford, All Is Lost. A Most Violent Year is his period crime movie, and in different ways, it's both admirable and disappointing, marinated in the influences of Sidney Lumet's New York films (Serpico, Prince of the City) and Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films. Most of this reconstruction is handled with care. Apart from some smudgy night scenes, the cinematography (shot by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young) captures New York with all that grimy romance that has been sandblasted away in the last couple of decades.
The homage to seventies crime dramas goes beyond the production values. Isaac isn't just wearing Pacino's coat, but his persona. With his stocky frame, sad eyes and soft, controlled speaking style, Isaac is unavoidably reminiscent of Michael Corleone. The difference is that Abel is a conscientious, straight-arrow guy, trying to avoid getting caught in the criminality that sticks like tar to everything around him.
Even the unglamorous home-heating business is plagued by corruption. In an early scene, a young oil-truck driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), is attacked at gunpoint, beaten and thrown out of his vehicle. We learn subsequently that the trucks are being robbed for their fuel and then abandoned. Abel suspects his competitors are behind the hijackings, but the upstanding Abel balks when a Teamsters rep insists he provide his drivers with guns.
In the meantime, there's a business to grow. Abel, accompanied by his lawyer, Andrew (Albert Brooks, looking disreputable in a straggly hairpiece), is putting his life savings into a down payment for a piece of waterfront property. He makes the payment, in two suitcases, to an old Hasidic Jewish man (Jerry Adler), who seems concerned about Abel's audacity. Other characters take time out to ask Abel why he's so driven and he seems puzzled by the question.
This is America. Put the pedal to the metal.
In Margin Call and All Is Lost, the suspense that Chandor created was organic to the premise: An investment company in freefall; a boat taking on water. With A Most Violent Year, he's guilty of some arbitrary narrative piling-on. Along with the real estate deal, and the robberies of his trucks, Abel is being investigated by an ambitious assistant district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo). At the same time, Abel, Anna and their three young daughters (barely visible in the film) have just moved into a new mansion in the suburbs. For good measure, Julian, the hijacked driver, continues to pop up every 40 minutes or so, like a pang of conscience.
Just when you'd think things couldn't get worse, they get worse. When someone attempts to break into the house and drops a gun on the front lawn, Anna, the gangster's daughter, flips into Lady Macbeth mode: "You're not gonna like what'll happen once I get involved," she snarls. Anna also curses out Abel, using a bad word meaning a young cat, which is moderately startling to hear coming out of Chastain's Juilliard-trained mouth, but less scary than funny. Gifted as she is at conveying hungry obsession, Chastain doesn't easily suggest someone conversant with street swagger.
By contrast, Chandor's other characters speak with a stilted formality: Alessandro Nivola, as a wealthy business rival, tells Abel: "My father is in jail, as you know, and I always wanted to conduct myself differently than he did." Here's Abel, talking about his view of situational ethics: "You should know that I have always taken the path that is most right." Or, this assurance from Abel's banker: "We have always been there with you and know that we will continue to be."
While it's a change from the usual wise-guys clichés, the formality sounds stilted and overdeliberate. That word "know" keeps popping up like a verbal tic in the script. What Abel knows, what he pretends not to know and how much he's deceiving himself are pertinent to Chandor's hard-to-miss thesis about the overlap between capitalism and criminality, respectability and ruthlessness.
The significance of Abel's home-heating business becomes obvious in the movie's rushed, pulpy climax. There's a juxtaposition of blood and oil that makes a political point with a bang. Of course, crime stats aside, 1981 was far from the most violent year in New York's recent history. That would take place 20 years later, on Sept. 11, 2001, the date that pushed us into the current global political era. All this is food for thought, if not an occasion for surprise. Like that camel-hair coat Abel wears, A Most Violent Year is classy and commands respect, but a stronger pulse under the lapels would make us care much more.