"If it was up to me, we'd be doing this in a very different way."
It takes a lot to make it in America, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is intent on doing it honestly. Or so he frequently says in A Most Violent Year, the new film from J.C. Chandor (All is Lost). So often does Abel claim he's trying to be an honest man, in fact, that one begins to wonder if he's trying to persuade everyone around him to believe it or just himself. This is the strongest and most obvious current running through this slow burning and methodical character study, that ultimately builds to a conclusion that can't help but be a letdown based on all the build-up. In fact, the film is almost exclusively comprised of rising action, and by the time the fuse lit in the opening moments of the film finally reaches the powder keg, rather than exploding, the film just seems to limp feebly off into the sunset.
The film does an exemplary job of setting the mood and tone from the opening credits sequence set to Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." Oddly enough, it then pumps the brakes a bit, bringing things down and establishing a pace that could best be called leisurely. Abel and his ambitious, mob connected wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are putting a down payment on an abandoned oil storage facility in hopes of growing their fledgling oil company. Abel's company is under siege from hijackers and cutthroat competitors, constantly trying to undermine his business and steal his product. He seeks to differentiate himself from his unscrupulous rivals by doing things the honest way, but he is currently in the crosshairs of an ambitious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo), determined to make a name for himself by finding some sort of corruption within Abel's organization.
Whenever the film focuses on the central relationship between Abel and Anna, or Abel's relationship with his lawyer, brilliantly played by Albert Brooks in a rather preposterous wig, it sizzles. The diversions into subplots, particularly an unnecessarily prolonged focus on one of Abel's drivers, tend to bog the film down and make it feel unfocused. The sluggish pace of the film doesn't help either, and though the almost constant tension works for a while, its payoffs are not equal to the grandiose setups they're given. For example, the subplot mentioned previously involving a skittish driver who is attacked at the film's opening is resurrected several times throughout the course of the film, but it's payoff is projected so far in advance, it makes one wonder why they felt the need to draw out such a foregone conclusion.
While it's easy to pick apart the film and point out all the areas in which it falters, it's even easier to admire the film for all the things it does right. The feel of the film is right out of the era in which it's set, calling to mind the atmospheric late 70s and early 80s work of Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula. In fact, the film it's most in debt to is Prince of the City, the film Lumet made in 1981, the year referenced in the title of this film. Most of the negative stereotypes regarding New York City's dangerous and seedy elements derived during this time period when crime of all stripes was at its highest point. The fact that your mom and dad still get nervous when you tell them you're traveling to New York City by yourself is completely and totally due to the reputation it earned during this time period, and the film is aces at recapturing that mood.
The performances are excellent as well, starting with the film's leads. For as much as Isaac wore his frustrations on his sleeve in last year's exemplary Inside Llewyn Davis, here he does a terrific job of bottling everything up and giving a focused, intense performance. He is fast becoming one of the most versatile and fascinating actors around, and the quicker you get on his bandwagon, the happier you'll be. Chastain shows here that she's every bit as versatile as Isaac, and can completely morph her voice and physicality to match a wide variety of roles. Though most of her best moments are spoiled in the trailer for the film, she still has a few surprises up her sleeve, and turns in a terrific performance. Ditto David Oyelowo, who is another chameleon who has turned in no fewer than three completely different performances in the span of two months, making him a similarly hot commodity. It wouldn't surprise me in ten years for people to rediscover this film simply to see these three future cinematic titans share the screen.
Chandor is setting up a great body of work by constantly changing genres, and his love of the cinema of his youth radiates through whatever film or genre in which he is working. If A Most Violent Year suffers as a film, it is in his meticulous world building that ultimately supports a story that's perhaps not as compelling as he might have liked. There's only so much tension and atmosphere a filmmaker can use to bolster a screenplay which is perhaps too slim to fill out a feature length film. Thanks to the brilliant performances and top notch cinematography by Selma DP Bradford Young, the film looks and feels as if it were birthed in the era in which it was set. If only it had adhered closer to that era's love of satisfying pay-offs that equaled the moody world building, this film could have been something special. Instead, it simply feels like the most gorgeous squandered opportunity in a year rife with them.
Go Rating 3/5
[Photos via Film's Official Website]