BEFORE TRYING TO KILL Robert Redford in All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor won accolades for Margin Call, a thriller set in an investment bank on the eve of the subprime mortgage crisis. Not many directors could earn audiences' sympathy while watching a bunch of privileged assholes destroy the world's financial system, but Chandor did just that. His latest, A Most Violent Year, treads similar ground, finding keenly affecting drama underneath a whole lot of sketchiness. Here, Chandor focuses on wannabe oil baron Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles in 1981 New York; while Abel's smart, determined wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), has his back, just about everyone else, from tough guys to an ambitious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo), has him in their sights.
The film's title refers not so much to Abel's story (the film takes place over a month and boasts relatively little bloodshed), but rather to New York in the early '80s—a rattling pressure cooker of crime and ambition. It's a hard, tense place, and thanks to great turns from Isaac and Chastain, A Most Violent Year thrums with dread.