Sidney Lumet passed away in 2011, not too far removed from a surprisingly strong swan song. Although the years had been slim for a while leading up to it, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" was a withering motion picture, expertly and energetically directed by a man in his 80s who had nothing to prove. After all, his first movie in a 50-year career was "12 Angry Men." And the '70s gave us "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" in the span of four years.
Missing since his light went dark, though, was a filmmaker like Sidney Lumet, but now he's here. Actually, J.C. Chandor has been here since 2011 (well, there's an eerie coincidence), when his directorial debut, "Margin Call," was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. It wasn't until now, however, that the resemblance became hard to overlook. "A Most Violent Year" slaps you in the face like Lumet's "Prince of the City." It's not a copy or even truly derivative, but the vibe is the same, and once you see the hallmarks, you can't unsee them.
It's also curious that "A Most Violent Year" is set in New York City in 1981, the year "Prince of the City" was released, so it's more than a passing thing. And it's good to have another Sidney Lumet around.
On its own terms, Chandor's third film is neither as audacious or exhilarating as "Margin Call" or last year's "All is Lost," which starred Robert Redford and ... nobody else. Like, it was literally the Sundance Kid on a boat for two hours by himself. (But see it. Seriously.) "A Most Violent Year" is a crime story of sorts, one that burns as slowly as the heating oil sold by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). He and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), inherited the company from her family, which—not unheard of in the New York of this era—was part of another "family." And although Abel would prefer to be free of the stain of organized crime, he doesn't mind looking the other way or cutting a corner now and then.
Unfortunately, he's under investigation for tax evasion and other offenses, being pressed early and often by a hotshot district attorney (the surprisingly unnominated David Oyelowo from "Selma"). And because his fuel trucks keep getting robbed, the bankers behind the big deal that will truly make Abel's company take off decide to pull their money, leaving him nowhere to turn but the very rivals whose mob-fueled practices he's trying to escape. As Abel gets closer to the brass ring, the vultures get closer to feasting on him.
This is all really good stuff, you think to yourself while absorbing the terrific elements Chandor brings together, lavishing us with strong performances by Isaac and Chastain. But the tale Chandor sets out to tell ends a little flat. It's true enough to the story, but it seems a shame to have created such a vibrant and dirty world that just sort of shrugs its way into the sunset. It's cursory.
In that way, this is the least satisfying of Chandor's three films, although there is still demonstrable growth here as a filmmaker. He's better at writing characters now than in "Margin Call," and better at developing complexities within them that most movies don't dare spend time examining. And his dialogue is extremely sharp. What this film lacks, and really all it lacks, is a third act that matches the rest of it.