'A Most Violent Year'
If anyone handed out awards for “Best Camel Skin Coat,” then ‘A Most Violent Year’ would sweep the category by a landside. Oscar Isaac saunters into the film early wearing the sweet garb and works it for the entire running time, to the point that you’ll wander out of the theater considering purchasing one of your own. It’s a striking costume, and this single on-screen element is indicative of both the strengths and weaknesses of this project as a whole. It’s a pretty movie and even a memorable one, but it’s also a little shallow and empty when held up to scrutiny.
The year referred to in the title is 1981, one of the most crime-ridden in the history of New York City. Abel Morales (Isaac) is a successful businessman in the heating oil game. He built his business from the ground up and is proud of his success, but even more proud of the fact that he did it clean. He’s about to close the biggest deal of his life with his lawyer, confidante and father figure (Albert Brooks) by his side when he learns that one of his trucks has been hijacked and the precious cargo stolen. This is becoming a recurring problem – one that the authorities have little interest in, given everything else they’re dealing with. It’s also one that Abel could solve by paying for protection, or even giving his drivers their own personal bullet spewing protection. Yet, Abel wants to stay above those sorts of dirty dealings, even against the advice of his Mob daughter wife (Jessica Chastain). Soon, a series of stressful events pile up and prove that no one in this city can avoid getting their hands dirty.
This is a compelling premise. It should surprise no one that it came from writer-director J.C. Chandor. The filmmaker announced his presence a few years ago with the economic meltdown chamber drama ‘Margin Call’, and confirmed his talents last year with the “Robert Redford vs. nature” movie ‘All Is Lost’. Chandor likes movies that play with big meaty themes and show off actors. ‘A Most Violent Year’ certainly fills that bill. The cast is remarkable, led by Isaac’s pained good man and Chastain’s delightfully tacky wolf in mom’s clothing. Every scene feels calculated to showcase the strength of the performers, and they all deliver.
Beyond that, Chandor crafts a tale filled with tension and uneasy suspense popped with the occasional burst of violence. However, the movie is clearly intended to be more than a simple crime thriller. This is a parable about the filth and crime needed to run any successful business, a lesson about the impossibility of being an honest man in a corrupt world, a warped morality tale, a twisted family portrait, an attack on the American Dream, an homage to 1970s Hollywood filmmaking, an indictment of the idiocy of masculinity, and a few other ideas bobbling around in Chandor’s head all at once. Toss in some vivid period design work and handsome cinematography, and you’ve got a movie almost impossible not to admire.
At the same time, it’s also oddly difficult to genuinely enjoy the movie. Chandor’s filmmaking has a coldness, and his writing has a portentousness that’s often hard to take here. Everything about the movie is calculated and intellectualized, which robs the story of any sense of drama, life or excitement. As good as the performances are, there’s never any sense of watching real people rather than talented actors play characters. As genre-infused as this crime story might seem in theory, it never feels particularly exciting. As weighty as the themes might be, Chandor rams them down his viewers’ throats with such grandiose symbolism and pounding speeches that they become exhausting.
That’s not to say that ‘A Most Violent Year’ is a bad movie by any stretch. It simply has too much strong work on all fronts to dismiss entirely. However, Chandor’s third feature is somehow too slight to fulfill its artistic ambitions and too intellectualized to work properly as entertainment. The filmmakers crafted something good, just not nearly as good as they may have thought. When you aim high, it’s easy to miss the mark, I suppose.