Though it opens with a sequence that culminates in a moment of intense brutality, J.C. Chandor’s third feature isn’t particularly violent, despite what the title may say. Outside of a few moments of white knuckle intensity, the bloodshed is taking place offscreen, in news reports heard in the background of scenes or referred to in the abstract. The real violence is psychological or emotional, between rival owners of heating oil companies and in the lavish household of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his mob-connected wife (Jessica Chastain).
But by placing the word “violent” in the film’s title, the spectre of potential bloodshed or fisticuffs lingers over every scene. As the temperature rises in heated conversations or even something as simple as Abel jogging down the street, you’re bracing yourself for a slap to land or a bullet to get fired. Don’t be surprised if you spend the entire running time with your back and shoulders taut and tense.
In that sense, Chandor puts you right into Abel’s shoes. As the film begins, he is putting together the deal to purchase a huge storage facility that sits right on a New York estuary, all the better to expand his business. Just as he starts moving forward though, not only do some of his delivery trucks start getting hijacked, but he learns that the District Attorney’s office is getting ready to investigate his business for potentially practices. If that weren’t enough, with that legal trouble in play, Abel’s bank decides not to float him the money to finalize his big real estate purchase.
What Isaac brings out so perfectly in his performance is Abel’s pure desperation. The idea of protecting his wife and young daughters is on his mind but his chief concern is protecting his financial security. He earned his modernist manse and he’s not going to give it up for anybody. Isaac brings all this to bear through his hunched over shoulders, clipped speech patterns, and furrowed brow. You feel for him as he moves around seeking either financial assistance or answers from his business rivals. And, again, you keep expecting him to, at some point, snap and start throwing punches.
Even better than Isaac is Chastain. In a role that could have been a mess of tear-stained histrionics, the veteran actress plays it with the reserve and the barely masked menace that you would expect from a woman who grew up in a Mafia family. Her threats to bring in daddy for help and her confrontation of the DA outside of the house feel as cold and dangerous as a sharpened icicle.
The real star of this show is Chandor. He has already proven adept at bringing America’s financial crisis into stark relief and put modern masculinity into question through a feature-length metaphor starring Robert Redford with his first two films Margin Call and All Is Lost. Here, his sharp script and direction call into question the American dream as a whole. It’s no mistake that Abel is an immigrant who has been slowly and assuredly climbing the capitalist ladder. This is the bill of goods that have been sold to millions of people who have emigrated here for the past 200 years. But what the director reminds us all is just how fucking ugly it can get trying to make that dream a reality, whether it’s through the people who would seek to knock you off your pedestal or a larger system of corruption that you’re forced to navigate. The path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one, and Chandor has no problem taking us along every circuitous and dangerous step.