Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola
Oscar Isaac must have some sort of affinity for New York City during the depths of winter. Only last year we saw him battling a big chill while chasing musical success in the Coen Bros. masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis. Now Isaac is back in the concrete jungle of dreams, struggling to pursue the ideals of his nation’s national ethos in J.C. Chandor’s oddly underwhelming A Most Violent Year… well at least he’s got a winter coat this time.
It’s 1981 and the Big Apple is facing its worst crime wave in more than a generation. While various thugs strive to build an empire through illegal means, self-made immigrant Abel (Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are attempting to make their mark on the highly competitive heating oil business while remaining on the right side of the law. Gushing over them however, is a tanker full of problems. Abel’s trucks and employees are being targeted daily by armed robbers working for an unknown rival, the DA (David Oyelowo) is in the process of filing criminal charges against the company, and a deal to purchase an expensive piece of lucrative land has been jeopardized by the bank’s decision to withdraw financial support from the company.
Swirling within this narrative is the dark and dangerous examination of a man trying to legitimately chase the American Dream, while avoiding the underworld’s greasy temptations. It’s an intelligently observed character study, flowing with fresh ideas that subvert the conventions of the gangster genre it is rooted within. Abel’s wife Anna insists that a show of violent force would prove to their competitors how strong they are, but he insists that they not lower themselves to such a level.
Anchoring this steely battle of wills are two sterling performances. As Abel, Isaac channels Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Like Michael, Abel is a calm and confident businessman who wants to be respected and feared. However, unlike Don Corleone he wants to be held in the highest regard for his business accruement alone, and as events push Abel further into the corner, Isaac superbly articulates the great strain heaped on his character’s poised composure.
Chastain meanwhile, is given the opportunity to let loose with ferocious hysterics when her husband continues to maintain his constitutional approach to business. Anna’s appearance may be icy, but her personality is fiery enough to melt the snow around her. As ever, it’s a fiercely memorable performance from Chastain, only marred by its underuse.
There are glimmers of Chandor’s magnificence to be found in A Most Violent Year. The atmosphere, augmented by the snowy New York surroundings, is effectively unsettling, chilling you to your core like a midwinter frost. And yet, like the film as a whole, its coldness fails to grip you like it should.
Given the many threads to the story, the film soon becomes as dense as the oil Abel trades in, so thick and overpowering that if you begin to let it wash over you then you’ll surely drown. Its slow, methodical pace is too sombre to hold you like the finest Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma films do (all obvious influences here).
Chandor has valiantly tried to fill his film to the brim with ideas, but it becomes strikingly clear during the final act that his vat has overflowed. The matter of the robbers soon seems like nothing but an inconvenience to Chandor, which he hurriedly concludes by way of a narratively questionable, but well staged chase sequence. While Oyelowo’s DA, much like Chastain’s Anna, is more of a shadow in the background than a supporting player, never afforded enough focus to feel integral and eventually dismissed as a political stereotype.
Given its subject and star power, A Most Violent Year is certainly J.C. Chandor’s most commercial film to date, but it is also his weakest. Quite ironically, the director has followed up All Is Lost with a film where he himself is lost at sea.