If potential were the dominant currency in Hollywood, J.C. Chandor would be the richest guy in the industry. The writer-director has come tantalizingly close to greatness with three films: The ensemble drama, Margin Call; the challenging, wordless All is Lost; and now, A Most Violent Year, his most flawed work, a period drama about big business in the Big Apple. Like Chandor’s previous films, A Most Violent Year aspires to be a classic and often has the requisite elements. But it lacks the cohesion and maturation to live up to those aspirations. A Most Violent Year plays out more like an exercise in ambition.
It begins with the film’s title, Chandor’s grasp at something both timeless and literate. The reference is to 1981, a year that, according to press materials, was the most dangerous in New York City’s history. It’s also the year protagonist Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is poised to emerge as a leader in NYC fuel delivery, buying up primo real estate and taking customers away from the competition, a group Chandor imagines as an oil industry version of the Five Families.
Like many a heroic leader in crooked times, Morales insists on keeping it clean while his peers are out hijacking fuel trucks. Morales’ desire for purity is his Achilles’ heel from the start, and Chandor is a strong enough storyteller to make it clear—this guy won’t win. Or will he? With his wife cooking the books and keeping her mouth shut, Morales isn’t as squeaky clean as he would like, yet he can appreciate the benefits of bending the rules. His name—related to the word “morals”—is certainly apt.
As Mrs. Morales, Jessica Chastain takes her own shot at bring to bear a certain literary heft. She overshoots. By a lot. As the blond beauty, Anna, Chastain goes for Lady Macbeth by way of the Bronx, and the tone rarely works. We’ve seen Chastain really jumpstart a character before (Zero Dark Thirty is a fine example), but she pushes Anna’s toughness to caricature—Anna would fit in well in American Hustle, wardrobe and all.
Isaac is both magnetic and enigmatic, and Chandor writes to his lead actor’s strengths: When Abel encourages new salespeople to stare into prospective customers’ eyes “longer than is comfortable,” Isaac works his most expressive trait, and shows off his ability to give a scene weight without weighing it down. (He uses his eyes remarkably well in Inside Llewyn Davis too, to a completely different effect.) Isaac’s skills here further highlight how grossly underrated an actor he is.
As interesting as Isaac is to watch—he is Chandor’s physical and emotional anchor—A Most Violent Year lacks a certain assembly. Each scene has its merits, and some are strong, but Chandor can’t properly meter out the movie’s larger rhythms. A chase scene on the 59th Street Bridge, although pivotal to the final act, feels dropped in and off-course. It’s as if Chandor wants A Most Violent Year to have all the markings of a memorable (and marketable) movie, but isn’t completely sure how to close the deal without it all feeling too scripted.
Compared to many crime dramas, these are not major filmmaking flaws. A Most Violent Year is generally watchable even as it cries out to be better. We’re watching a career in progress here, the missteps of a very talented director who’s trying to make a true mark on American filmmaking. J.C. Chandor’s attempt is admirable, even as he remains at the brink of cinematic mastery.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Release Date: Dec. 31, 2014