In writer-director J.C. Chandor’s film A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an Hispanic immigrant living in New York City in 1981. Morales wants to build his business empire without resorting to the illegal acts of so many of his counterparts, but finds this increasingly difficult when he becomes the target of an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) as well as an unknown thief, who has apparently hired men to steal the gasoline from Abel’s trucks, to the tune of 200,000 dollars-worth of fuel. Abel is about to make a massive real estate purchase—of a shipyard right on the Hudson River—that will ensure the growth of his company, but when his banker reneges on the loan, his wife (played by Jessica Chastain), herself the daughter of a mobster, encourages him to do whatever is necessary—whether legal or not—to obtain the shipyard. This movie is about Abel’s personal struggle to remain legitimate and how such an aspiration seems almost impossible in Abel’s chosen field.
All you need to see is one of the movie trailers for A Most Violent Year to tell that the film has been christened as an important work. It oozes prestige like sap from a massive oak tree. The National Board of Review hailed it as the best film of 2014, and it has garnered a host of other accolades (although Oscar ignored it completely). What’s unfortunate is that A Most Violent Year has some truly fascinating elements that fail to come together, and these elements are further pushed down by the movie’s own heaviness. Chandor, so grimly obsessed with emulating a great 70s movie, has captured none of the vitality of a film like The Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon. He has some wonderful assets, chiefly his star Oscar Isaac, who’s a terrific performer and who can carry a picture like this with ease. Chandor makes him up like a Ken Doll version of a 1970s Al Pacino. Isaac sports a thick wisp of black hair sprinkled with grey, and he strides around in nice-looking suits and a beige trench coat. The look is flawless, almost too flawless; and the movie itself is too perfect, too slick to be what Chandor wants it to be, but also too lifeless.
For one thing, the title A Most Violent Year is misleading. It suggests a catalog of the crimes of 1981, which was apparently a very active year for crime in New York. With such a title and such a time period, we expect the movie to be about the district attorney, but he has relatively little screen time. It’s a clunky, constricting title that again raises our expectations for something grand and definitive. The intriguing element at the heart of J.C. Chandor’s film—the attempted rise of the anti-gangster—cannot stay afloat.
In fact, the 1981-ness of the film feels so tacked onto the story that one wonders why this movie had to be set 35 years ago, or why even the movie has been made in the first place. We can only assume that J.C. Chandor, whose debut film, 2011’s Margin Call, was a first-rate exploration of the 2008 financial meltdown, is convinced that looking into the past will certify him as a great filmmaker. As fantastic as the 1970s were, we need filmmakers who can speak to what’s happening now, who can push movies forward rather than backward. (Chandor did that so well with Margin Call). Learning from cinema of the past is incredibly important, but wallowing in it just feels like cheap imitation, not real art. Margin Call is a compelling, surprisingly complex film, while A Most Violent Year lacks depth.
As Abel’s wife Anna, Jessica Chastain looks like a homicidal, ferocious Barbie doll. She keeps her nails long and sharp and her breasts featured prominently in her clothes, maintaining a weird mixture of sex-kitten femininity and aggressiveness. It doesn’t always work, chiefly because her character never gets to do much. In an early scene, we see Anna taking charge of a situation: While driving one evening, Abel hits a deer, and Anna insists that he put the deer out of its misery. He extracts a tire iron from the trunk of the car and hesitantly approaches the dying deer (the only heartbreaking moment in the film), and pauses, waiting, hesitating more. Then we hear two shots, and we see Anna holding a gun. That’s when it becomes clear why Chandor included this scene in the first place: Anna will do what’s necessary when Abel will not. Chandor does make use of Anna near the end of the movie when Abel is unable to make his payment on the shipyard. But other than that, her character seems dramatically untapped. She’s a grenade waiting to go off, but she never goes off.
There are more problems. One of Abel’s truck drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel) is accosted by two thieves and put into the hospital with a broken jaw and some other severe wounds. When he finally gets back on his feet, he’s obviously unhinged, partly because he’s afraid of another robbery and partly because he feels powerless to improve his economic circumstances. When Julian is attacked again, he brandishes a handgun and gets involved in a shootout with the attempted robbers. The police arrive, but Julian runs from the scene like one of the criminals instead of telling the police that he was being attacked. Julian’s emotional breakdown never worked for me because it seemed so illogical for him to run. (Perhaps if Chandor had shown us that the police were corrupt or unwilling to believe his story, Julian’s decision to flee the scene might be more credible.)
A Most Violent Year isn’t even as violent as you might expect, although it does have a surprising number of jolting moments, as though Chandor were jumping out at us from behind a door and yelling, “Boo!” He does this multiple times, and it’s never clear why we’re meant to be on edge, unless the director mistakenly thinks that this is how you build tension. This film is yet another example of a movie having a variety of excellent parts (strong actors, an interesting subject, good technicians working on it) and amounting to a disappointing result. It may be the only Oscar decision I can really get behind. (Although, I do think people should see this movie. It’s certainly interesting even when it fails to work.)