Let me just start by telling you what it’s about, because what it’s about is by far the most interesting thing about A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s third feature and, following Margin Call, second dissertation on the ethics of capitalism.
It’s 1981. New York’s crawling with crime. Prosperous local oil distributor Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) puts down a massive deposit on a Queens waterfront storage facility, with another $1.5-million to cough up in the next 30 days. The bank’s got Morales’ back, but he’s assailed with obstacles: crusading DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is indicting him on vague corruption charges and, at the same time, fuel bandits are hijacking Morales’ trucks at toll booths and on turnpikes. The teamsters want to arm Morales’ drivers and Anna (Jessica Chastain), Morales’ wife, wants to ask favours from her “Family,” but Morales says no. Actually he says something terribly articulate and verbose that’s more or less a “no.” Morales is not to be corrupted. But Morales is also not to be dissuaded from his dreams of dominating his industry. He’s the embodiment of good capitalism. “I like to own the things I use,” he says.
He also says, “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster.” A man presiding over a risky business, trying to avoid getting dragged into a criminal swamp: Morales is clearly modelled after Michael Corleone, and Isaac, a good actor, is, in his understated way, doing Pacino. Oddball, methody details included—he chews gum while going for a run! Isaac’s breakout performance was as the titular folksinger in Inside Llewyn Davis, and there’s a goofy little call-back to Llewyn in A Most Violent Year: on a dark road Isaac hits, not a cat this time, but a deer. Instead of stalking away into the surrounding brush, the deer is disposed of by Chastain in a laughably portentous Lady Macbeth moment. I wasn’t especially hung up on her very inconsistent Brooklyn accent, but Chastain’s talents are not well served by this overwrought yet underwritten role.
Much as I liked All is Lost, it is easy to overstate Chandor’s chops. The film’s tone benefits from an interesting if over-used Alex Ebert score, which at times echoes the early bits of ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ with hints of Ravel thrown in. But A Most Violent Year is mostly very baggy, with many needless cutaways to reaction shots that I suspect will, once you start noticing them, prompt eye-rolling reactions from you. The bagginess extends to the blunt, overemphatic dialogue—“It’s a gun. It’s a FUCKING gun” or “I don’t know. I don’t FUCKING know”—which can also be comically, redundantly on-the-nose: “You seem to be under a lot of pressure from all sides,” a highly perceptive union boss says to Morales. Of course, nothing in the writing of A Most Violent Year feels quite as ham-fisted as the naming of Abel Morales, who is both able and a man of morals. “I have always taken the path that is most right, and that is what this is.”
In broad brushstrokes, the story is a compelling reflection on a certain time and place, a certain tendency in certain industries, but scene by scene A Most Dangerous Year is poorly executed. Of course, it’s a story of poor executions—are we really supposed to believe that not one, but two hired thugs in this movie can’t hold onto their gun? And is it not a serious weakness in the writing that the drama turns on one of its characters—a driver who gets repeatedly ambushed—simply being unbelievably stupid?