Alibi V.24 No.5 • Jan 29-Feb 4, 2015 

Film Review

A Most Violent Year

Chandor’s ’70s-style crime thriller aims for greatness, hits goodness

A Most Violent Year

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo

“Relax, honey. We’ll get through this. ... One day the ’80s will be over.”
“Relax, honey. We’ll get through this. ... One day the ’80s will be over.”

One day, writer-director J.C. Chandor will make a brilliant movie. He hasn’t quite managed it yet. His much-praised 2001 investment banking drama Margin Call featured some crackling dialogue and a lot of impressive talent for a $3.5 million film (Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany). But it was too claustrophobic and clogged with financial minutia to really resonate as a mainstream thriller. His well-reviewed follow-up, 2013’s All Is Lost, also boasted some big-name talent (Robert Redford) and some bracing drama. But for all its bravura minimalism, it was—like Margin Call—just too limited in scope to successfully break out of the art house circuit.

Now comes Chandor’s latest work, a gritty, understated throwback of a crime film titled A Most Violent Year. It is yet more evidence that Chandor is an up-and-coming talent poised to explode on the Hollywood scene. But it’s also the latest in a string of almost-but-not-quite-brilliant films.

Set in New York City in 1981, the movie goes out of its way to remind us that particular annum was the most violent in the city’s history. Struggling to shake off the darkness of the ’70s, NYC was experiencing its last-gasp, pre-Giuliani high-water mark of corruption, murder, rape and other assorted crime.

Our guide through this long-lost, Disney-Store-in-Times-Square-free world is Oscar Isaac (currently wedged between breakout/sellout performances in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII). Isaac plays Abel Morales, an ambitious, ambiguously ethnic immigrant fighting to protect his business and raise his family during these most troubling of times. The film is set in the high-stakes world of New York’s heating oil supply industry. As in Margin Call, Chandor has clearly researched the hell out of the business. His portrayal of the sketchy, organized crime-controlled heating oil industry in late-’70s/early-’80s NYC is meticulous. Then again, how many people out there are fascinated by the intimate details of heating oil? “Not many” is the unfortunately honest answer.

Around this utilitarian business, Chandor crafts your basic “building of an empire” crime drama. Abel isn’t the nicest guy in the world. He isn’t above cheating the IRS or pressuring a customer into paying a bit more than market price. But, in the grand scheme of things, he’s not such a horrible guy. Far worse are his ruthless competitors, one of whom appears to be hijacking his delivery trucks on a regular basis. Urging him to respond in kind is Abel’s chain-smoking, Lady Macbeth-esque wife, Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain, channeling Michelle Pfeiffer’s severe ’80s look from Scarface).

Chandor’s film is thick with frosty atmosphere. He’s set his kettle to slow-burn here, and it’s not the wrong choice. But as its monologue-heavy story plods along, A Most Violent Year ends up becoming more distant, chilly and removed—like everything’s taking place in a snow globe.

Tired of being the poorest rich guy in his subdivision, Abel enlists his lawyer (Albert Brooks, who’s pitch-perfect here) to purchase a massive fuel depot that’s more than just a little out of his price range. But if the rickety finances all pan out, he’ll become the business mogul he’s always dreamed of being. Adding to Abel’s ulcers are an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) convinced the Moraleses have something to hide, a bank that’s becoming increasingly wary of dealing with this troubled industry and a bunch of mobbed-up competitors just waiting for our man to stumble.

As usual, Chandor has crafted an ethical/existential script that hums with realism. He’s recruited a fine cast. He’s done wonders with a slim budget. And he practically ODs on time and place, crafting the entire film like some lost Sidney Lumet thriller. But A Most Violent Year is no Serpico, no Dog Day Afternoon, no Prince of the City. ... Night Falls on Manhattan, maybe.

Set in the grubbiest sections of New York’s waterfront and blanketed in a layer of dirty, late-winter snow, Chandor’s film is thick with frosty atmosphere. He’s set his kettle to slow-burn here, and it’s not the wrong choice. But as its monologue-heavy story plods along, A Most Violent Year ends up becoming more distant, chilly and removed—like everything’s taking place in a snow globe. Unlike the often frozen emotional and aesthetic environment of, say, a Stanley Kubrick film, the style just doesn't seem intentional enough here. With Kubrick, you stare at the characters as if they are insects pinned inside a display case. You wonder as much about them as what your gazing down upon them means. Are you complicit in all of Little Alex’ amoral crimes in A Clockwork Orange simply because you watch passively as he commits them (and maybe even thrill a little at the exuberant conclusion of it all)? Here, that level of self-reflexive contemplation just doesn't exist. Abel mumbles and stumbles toward his capitalistic version of the American Dream, never really questioning his methods or motivations. It simply feels like the filmmaker missed a lot of opportunities to bring his characters closer to the audience and make them sympathetic or hated or anything that would deliver a stronger emotional hit.

Isaac is a convincing actor. But this character doesn’t challenge him enough. Compare the main character here to the main character in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day-Lewis playing ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview). Both men work in a similar business. It's hard to call Plainview a sympathetic guy, but damn if he doesn't make an impact. He’s the kind of character you never forget. Here, our man Abel just feels too wishy-washy. He never really acts like a good guy, but he never really bites the bullet and becomes a truly bad man. He just sort of ... skates through. Watching the office door close on Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, you get chills knowing who and what that man has become. It’s a shame A Most Violent Year can’t work up a similar impact.

For all the above criticism, however, A Most Violent Year is clearly the work of some talented people. There’s a lot that works here. And there’s a lot to praise. J.C. Chandor is smarter, more ambitious and more artistic than 75 percent of the independent filmmakers working today. I still have faith that he’ll deliver a truly great movie. But this isn’t it.