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Three Questions For J. C. Chandor

Is "A Most Violent Year" a failed homage to the great New York crime and corruption films of the 1970s, or is it trying to subvert our expectations of such films?

I count myself a big booster of J.C. Chandor on his rapid rise through the ranks of American filmmakers. His first feature – “Margin Call” – is the only film I’ve ever seen to accurately depict the Wall Street that I knew when I worked there (by which I mean: he gets the culture right; the terminological details don’t really matter). His second feature – “All Is Lost” – was a daring cinematic venture, but also an intriguing meditation on the Randian myth of the self-sufficiency of the captains of industry.

His most recent film, “A Most Violent Year,” however, left me puzzled, and dissatisfied. I have a funny feeling that, for the first time, Chandor is either trying to do something that I don’t understand, or that he’s tried to make a relatively conventional movie, and simply failed. My respect for his intelligence and creativity inclines me toward the first explanation. Hence my list of questions.

1. The film is set in 1981, at the time the peak year for violent crime in New York history. This violence was largely of the un-organized variety, and fueled a broad public perception that New York was descending into chaos. “Escape From New York” premiered that year, for God’s sake.

But there is remarkably little violence in “A Most Violent Year,” and the violence we do see is of the organized variety – a turf war between mobbed-up heating oil companies that carved up their territory generations ago. The city we see feels almost empty – there’s no hint of the frenzied crush of humanity that we get from “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico,” not even when we make our way through a graffiti-festooned subway car as part of a chase sequence that is the only point in the film where the adrenaline really gets flowing. The police never shoot at an armed suspect fleeing a shootout on the 59th-street bridge – and when that suspect later changes his mind about turning himself in, and runs, the police are once again flat-footed, and nobody is terribly concerned or surprised.

Was this all an unavoidable consequence of working with a low budget? And if the latter, why set the film in a period with so much cinematic resonance? Or was the choice deliberate, and is Chandor suggesting that the movies of the time made the city more lurid than it really was?

2. Oscar Isaac appears to be doing something of a young Pacino imitation. He speaks slowly, deliberately, precisely, as if barely husbanding a great deal of energy and potential for violence. But he almost descends into parody, what with enunciating of every consonant and refusing to use contractions. (I was reminded of Matt Damon’s diction in “True Grit” more than once – but there I know the delivery was supposed to be funny.)

Moreover, what his character, Abel Morales, actually says is frequently emptily portentous. For example: when he calls together his various rivals, at least one of whom he knows is stealing from him, and tells them simply: “Stop it. Now.” The tone suggests a quiet, very serious threat. But no actual threat is delivered. Just as with the scenes when he tells his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) that he’ll “take care of” any threats to them or their kids, I get the sense that he’s all bluff. That he thinks he can win any contest by sheer force of sustained eye contact.

Which might have been Chandor’s point. That, after all, is the main technique Morales teaches his own salesmen – maintain eye contact for longer than is comfortable and you’ll close. Perhaps that’s really his only trick. Was that what Chandor intended, I wonder – to send up the whole Pacino myth by pointing out how much of it is nothing more than intense brown eyes? And that this intensity is the only reason we ever bought into Michael Corleone – and all his subsequent defining roles – in the first place? (And, perhaps, is the only reason we take business people seriously as well?)

3. The more I thought about the plot, the more it seemed that the stakes of the film are exceptionally low. Consider: in the opening sequence, we learn that Morales is taking a huge risk in putting down a $1 million deposit on a piece of waterfront property. He has 30 days to deliver another $1.5 million or he will lose the property to a competitor. Leave aside the oddity of this contract – we’re introduced into a world where Morales is daring to go toe-to-toe with bigger, tougher competitors and muscle them out of a property vital to their future prosperity. If he fails, he loses everything.

So the initial stakes are financial, but significant within that realm. One assumes – particularly given the title – that the stakes will only escalate from there to something more personal. But, in fact, every time the stakes appear to rise, they actually reveal that they were never that high in the first place. Thugs who bring guns to his house, and to hijack his trucks, never fire them – and certainly never intended to. Indeed, the thugs are generally polite and even helpful whenever they get into conversation. Perhaps Morales is right not to worry about the violence – that it’s all so much bluff and theater.

As Morales himself describes it, his reluctance to fight violence with violence is pragmatic – he will lose the bank loan if he comes under public scrutiny and they think he is mobbed up like his competitors. But when charges are brought against Morales’s company for corrupt practices, the bank stands with him. And when the bank, later, does drop him, Morales simply goes and gets the money he needs from his competitors – the same competitors who, supposedly, were so desperate to get the property for themselves.

When he doesn’t get the money quickly enough – the seller of the property gives him a grace period of three days to pull it all together. When his wife reveals that she’s been stealing from their company and socking the money away for a rainy day, Morales is furious, fearing this might get him in trouble with the D.A. who is investigating him (David Oyelowo). But it doesn’t. Once he’s closed on the property, and has a clear future as an important local businessman, the D.A. quietly offers to downgrade the charges in exchange for political support. Most notably, when Morales figures out which competitor has been stealing from him, his competitor rolls over and pays him whatever he asks with barely a whimper.

It seems that all that was ever really at stake was Morales’s self-image as someone who could achieve all his goals on the basis of pure sustained eye-contact. His competitors weren’t really determined to ruin him. Nobody was really going to get personally violent. If all went well, he’d get the property free and clear for a great price. But because his competitors made it hurt, he got the property on somewhat worse terms and he has to take on one of them as a partner (and he would have had to take on another if his wife hadn’t socked away money for a rainy day).

So again, I wonder: is this part of Chandor’s point? That these “high-stakes” business dealings only feel that way because of the atmospherics we surround them with? That, in reality, we’re generally talking about the difference between doing fine and doing fantastically well, between being the sole boss or having partners, between doing it “the most right way” or having to cut a few corners?

I could ask more questions of this ilk. Over and over, this film felt to me that it was subverting the expectations we have of the genre and the period, but I couldn’t tell to what end. If Chandor really was trying to make an homage to the great New York movies of the 1970s, stories of crime and corruption and battles for supremacy over a feverish and perhaps-dying city, then “A Most Violent Year” is simply a failure. But if he was trying to say, “no, it wasn’t really like that; it was honestly more like this, with much lower stakes than the lighting, score and line delivery would suggest” – well, he got what he wanted. But I’m not sure how satisfying a successful result really is as a cinematic experience.