Review: Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac anchor peculiar and powerful ‘A Most Violent Year’

New York CIty, 1981, is a blasted moral hellscape against which a very primal struggle for survival unfolds in a very tense thirty days, all for the right to supply homes with heating oil.

J. C. Chandor's “A Most Violent Year” is a powerfully told story, a thrilling surprise, and both Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain do remarkable work as a couple trying to close a deal that will turn their heating oil company into a much larger overall business, the deal they've been working their whole lives to prepare. This one particular month starts with them confident, convinced they're going to take things to the next level, and it unfolds with them increasingly unsure that they're going to pull it off. It is a movie about an entire city conspiring to test a marriage, and the way this one particular couple fights their way through.

This is a great screenplay first and foremost. I think it's impeccably paced, and the way the pieces drop into place, it's never too clever or too much about the plotting, but instead about watching how characters make choices. From the very first moment, Abel Morales ((Isaac) is being tested. And Anna Morales (Chastain) is right there by his side. Bit by bit, this film perfectly tests and twists and turns and tumbles them.

There's a district attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo) who is preparing a major case against the Morales family and their business. Anna assure Abel that there's nothing to find, that they're as clean as anyone in the industry can be. He's the one making gut check choices over the course of the film, and it's always him coming back to her, and her talking to him at the end of the day.

There's plenty to report, too. There's all of their dealings with their lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). There's a driver who gets attacked and pulled out of his truck, his jaw broken. Julien (Elyes Gabel) wants to be like Abel. He looks at him as an example, as proof that you can make it happen if you work for it. Even after he's attacked, he wants to believe in the example.

When you think about fascinating industries to delve into on film, heating oil supply really doesn't sound like something I'd put on the top of a list. I'd be wrong, though, because Chandor's script paints this amazing, detailed portrait of the world that Abel is trying to conquer. It's not the whole world. He's not crazy. But it's his corner of things, and he wants to be able to say he did it the right way. He wants to do it with his hands clean. It's how he defines himself, and how he picks his course of action.

Alex Ebert's score is my favorite score so far, in November, and by a wide margin. It's a fantastic score, so expressive, so important to the way the film works. This is a major theatrical experience. From a perfect first shot to a perfect last shot, I think this is a carefully considered movie. Chandor's in full control over what he's doing at this point. He's been getting more aggressively stylized with each film. What he does here is not reality, and it's not meant to be. His filmmaking is very experience-oriented. We feel what Abel feels. We're with him for most of the movie. There are scenes where we follow someone else, and in each case, it's meant to put us in he shoes of these people. We're meant to feel just what it's like to try to navigate the enormous pressure they're all under, and there's a strong conversation to be had about how clean Abel's hands are at the end of the film.

Bradford Young's photography is impressive, considered, emotional. I want to watch this again in a theater, just to feel that mix, to feel that same pulse that is running through it from the start to the conclusion. Ron Patane, who cut the film, tightens the screws in just the right way, bit by bit, and I'm impressed by not only where Chandor's story ends up, but how it feels when we get there. Sometimes you just feel a different degree of control in what's happening onscreen. Sometimes you can feel that there's something special happening with the cast or in some other deepartment or, in the best case scenarios, in all of the departments at once.

I wasn't expecting whatever this film was. I am impressed by how adult it is, how confident it is, how sad it is, and yet how much it dares to say you can win after all, you can have it if you're willing to give yourself up completely. Watching how Abel salvages his deal, how he keeps his dream afloat, how he makes sure he can go home and tell Anna that everything's going to be okay… it's crazy. It's dark. It's really scary on some level, because the stakes seem to be so very high.

The entire cast deserves credit, but Chastain and Isaac are amazing, so in tune, so able to read each other in a scene that there's something happening, something real, in every one of their private conversations. It's the reason I care about anything else. The mechanics of the business, the things that they do to keep it afloat, that's all only interesting because of how much it matters to these two people, and because they make it matter.

I thought “Margin Call” was fine. I thought “All Is Lost” was fine. I have liked the work of J. C. Chandor before now, but I was hardly a raving advocate. I'm onboard the Chandor train this time, though. I think this is a pretty major piece of adult emotional entertainment, something special, and I hope we get a lot more like it from him.

“A Most Violent Year” played the opening night of The AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles at the Dolby Theater. It will open in theaters on December 31, 2014.