The cast and crew do admirable work in A Most Violent Year, but the script and pacing make the movie a near-miss.
Considering the talent on hand, that’s a shame.
The film is a shining example of art direction, and it boasts a firecracker cast with the likes of Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain. It’s set in New York in 1981, and the look of the city is perfect. (I lived a half-hour outside of Manhattan at the time, so I know.) If only the storytelling had been done better.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) takes a slow-burn look at the life of Abel Morales (Isaac), a fuel-company owner trying to grow bigger in the face of lawsuits and constant criminal attacks on his drivers. The film opens with one particular driver (Elyes Gabel) getting hijacked outside of a New York City tollbooth; he suffers through a vicious beating. His story becomes one of the threads that run throughout the movie.
Meanwhile, an assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has informed him of impending charges that will threaten the life of his company. This puts Abel’s wife, Anna (Chastain), on edge: She’s the one keeping the books, and she claims everything is on the level. Abel’s business associate Andrew (Brooks) fears for the company’s business future while advocating that, perhaps, their drivers should arm themselves against attackers.
The plot seems to be going somewhere at first, but it never really does. Chandor gives his film the look of an early Coppola production (that toll-booth scene echoes Sonny’s execution in The Godfather), but a lack of depth, and inexplicable behavior by some characters, doom the film.
There are moments in the movie that, while dramatically impactful, don’t make sense. An example: When Anna puts three slugs in an injured deer, she fails to tell her husband before firing the shots. She just walks up right next to him, a few feet away, and fires a gun into the injured animal. This sort of thing would give a somebody a heart attack. Yes, Anna is a tough hombre, but this particular action seems far-fetched in a movie that’s supposed to be grounded in realism. Year has a bunch of moments like this. Meanwhile, Brooks’ character is present in the film for no apparent reason. His Andrew winds up providing little along the lines of plot development.
Much of this movie focuses on Isaac, talking really slowly, sitting at tables and trying to work out details for loans. It gets tedious. Isaac almost always fascinating, in any role, but he can’t save the movie.
It’s appropriate that a substantial aspect of A Most Violent Year involves the robbing of fuel trucks, because the movie is full of talented performers who have been robbed in the last few years. Isaac should’ve been Oscar-nominated for his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, and his Year co-star Brooks was unbelievably passed over for Drive (also which happened to co-star Isaac). Oyelowo was perhaps this year’s biggest Oscar snub after he failed to garner a nod for his remarkable work in Selma. Chastain is the only one who has actually gotten Oscar nods in recent years (Zero Dark Thirty and The Help.)
I’ve watched the film twice, and it stands up even more poorly during a second viewing. Despite how real it looks, with some credible moments and performances, the film is dull and implausible.
You can do a lot worse than watching Isaac, Brooks and Chastain performing together. But that doesn’t make A Most Violent Year worth your time.
A Most Violent Year is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).