While the cast and crew do admirable work in A Most Violent Year, the script and pacing render the movie a near miss rather than the solid outing it could’ve been. Considering the talent on hand, that’s a bit of a shame.
The film is a shining example of art direction, and one that boasts a firecracker cast with the likes of Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain. Set in New York in 1981, it certainly has the look of early '80s Manhattan—I lived half an hour outside of Manhattan at the time, so I know—it’s just not a crack example of storytelling.
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 truck drivers. The film opens with one driver (Elyes Gabel) getting hijacked outside an NYC tollbooth, and he suffers through a vicious beating. His story becomes one of the threads that run throughout the movie.
Abel is on the cusp of becoming one of the city’s biggest oil distributors, but some obstacles stand in his way. On top of his trucks getting hijacked en masse, an assistant D.A. (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) also fears for their business future, while advocating that perhaps their drivers should arm themselves against attackers.
It all seems to be going somewhere, but 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 the end results are iffy due to what comes off as a lack of depth and character’s behaving inexplicably.
There are moments in the movie that, while dramatically effective in their way, I just can’t buy, and they hurt the overall viewing experience. 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 and fires a gun a few feet away 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 farfetched in a movie that’s supposed to be grounded in realism.
Yes, a moment like that isn’t enough to derail a picture, but Year happens to have a bunch of those moments. Characters often act in a way that their actions make no sense. And, in the case of Brooks, they are present in the film for no real apparent reason. His Andrew winds up providing very little along the lines of plot development.
Much of this movie is Isaac, talking really slowly, while sitting at tables trying to work out details for loans. It gets tedious to the point where it’s not enjoyable. While Isaac is almost never anything but fascinating in any role, even he can’t save the movie from becoming boring.
It’s appropriate that a substantial aspect of A Most Violent Year involves the robbing of fuel trucks, because the movie is full of talent that has been robbed in the last few years. Isaac should’ve been Oscar-nominated for his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, and his Year costar Brooks was unbelievably passed over for his performance in Drive (which also happened to costar Isaac). Oyelowo was perhaps this year’s biggest Oscar snub story in that he failed to garner a nod for his remarkable work as MLK in Selma. Chastain is the only one who has actually gotten some Oscar nods (Zero Dark Thirty and The Help).
I’ve watched the film twice, and it simply doesn’t stand up well on a second viewing. Despite how real it looks, and some credible moments and performances, the film ultimately comes up a little dull and implausible.
You can do a lot worse than watching the likes of Isaac, Brooks and Chastain performing together, but that doesn’t make A Most Violent Year worth your time.