Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are the stars of J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and they’re electrifying. Many viewers will know Isaac from last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he played a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village stubbornly determined to find success without selling out. He appears radically transformed here—tough, and tightly strung. With his black hair swept up into a modified pompadour he looks like a young Pacino. (He acts like him, too.) His character, Abel Morales, runs a heating oil company with his wife Anna (Chastain) in early-80s New York, and even though he likes to think of himself as running a clean business he’s already dipped one toe in the crime world. In some ways Abel is not so far removed from Llewyn Davis: he wants to get ahead through honest means (note that surname), without resorting to violence or corruption or getting help from Anna and her father, a shadowy figure who may have ties to the mob. But in this lean, pitilessly dark parable about making it in America, it turns out to be impossible to get ahead without hurting someone else.
That’s a lesson that another film this year, Tony Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, also teaches; but A Most Violent Year seems to me the more stylish and confidently made film. (It represents a great leap forward for writer-director Chandor, whose previous film, All Is Lost, was an interesting but somewhat slight exercise in minimalism.) Both Nightcrawler and A Most Violent Year show the influence of 1970s American cinema: Nightcrawler draws on Scorsese’s early films with de Niro, while A Most Violent Year resembles the films of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin. It’s set in the same grimy New York of Friedkin’s Cruising, and it has a chase scene that's almost as good as the one in The French Connection. It’s more intelligent, though, than any of Friedkin’s films, and more pointed in its irony. Chandor encourages us to see the story of Abel Morales as an object lesson in how American dreams require blood and money in order to come true. (When Albert Brooks shows up in a small part, we’re also reminded of Lost in America, his own tale of a husband and wife’s ill-fated attempt to make a better life for themselves.)
Isaac is well matched by Jessica Chastain, whose ballsy turn as Anna just barely manages to avoid tipping over into camp. Shrewd, slightly vulgar, and hard as her manicured nails, Anna is a low-rent Lady Macbeth with a Brooklyn accent. She functions to remind Abel throughout the film—often tauntingly, her eyes glittering—that nice guys finish last. She’s so thrilling to watch that one wishes that she was given more to do; Anna and Abel may work as a team, but Chastain’s role is very much a supporting one. In the end, though, it ends up not mattering all that much. Chandor’s story is so cleanly and unfussily executed that I was willing to overlook its flaws. This will likely be one of my favorite films of the year.