"We Set the Standard" goes the motto of Standard Heating Oil, the fictional small business at the center of urban drama "A Most Violent Year." The motto slyly announces the allegory writer-director J.C. Chandor is after, but could just as well describe the rising auteur's mature filmmaking style.
Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") stars as Abel Morales, an immigrant who's been chasing the American dream with his shipping fleet of heating-oil trucks. The time is 1981, the place New York City. Hindsight tells us this was statistically the "most violent year" in the city's history, and Abel is feeling it: His trucks have been singled out by armed hijackers who steal hundreds of thousands of dollars of fuel. The escalating pressures on his business and his sense of self include scared drivers insistent on being allowed to carry firearms, an assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) bringing charges of corrupt business practices and a handful of withering advisers, including a consigliere (Albert Brooks) and a wife (Jessica Chastain's Anna) who's taken a page from Lady Macbeth's playbook.
Abel keeps telling himself, "I've always taken the path that is most right," but the refrain begins to sound more and more defensive as he's pushed into compromise, until we begin to wonder how true it was to begin with. As Abel tries fruitlessly to draw moral lines, Chandor intriguingly engages in issues like the gun debate -- are we safer with or without them? -- and the roots of a corporate culture that has squeezed out employee loyalty. The latter theme gets achingly humanized in the person of Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and fellow immigrant who Abel reluctantly disappoints.
That the tale is one of blood and oil certainly is no accident; Chandor allows for a broader reading of the compromises forced on (or ruthlessness embraced by) American politicians, for what is latter-day war but big business? The historical perspective of the film's setting also invites cinematic nostalgia. It's impossible not to think of Sidney Lumet's smart, atmospheric, dialogue-and-actor-driven urban thrillers, especially in light of the versatility he shares with Chandor, whose previous two films were the rat-a-tat-tat "Margin Call" and near-silent, existential "All is Lost." One can also see shades of William Friedkin in the hold-your-breath action sequences, and Isaac's commanding lead is positively Pacino-esque, circa "The Godfather."
At times, such touchstones are too obvious: Chastain's gangster's daughter unmistakeably evokes Michelle Pfeiffer's moll from "Scarface." More importantly, Anna feels more like a narrative device than a person, despite Chastain's efforts to ground the character. All in all, though, Chandor makes "A Most Violent Year" an unsettling examination of moral drift, over a year in the life of a man and a generation in the life of a country.
Rated R for language and some violence. Two hours, 5 minutes.