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A Most Violent Year a Precisely Crafted Homage Lacking a Clear Voice

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • 2015 2 Jan
<i>A Most Violent Year</i> a Precisely Crafted Homage Lacking a Clear Voice

DVD Release Date: April 7, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 31, 2014 (limited); wider through January 2015.
Rating: R (for strong language and some violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 125 min
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel

For people who love classic art, there are web sites from which you can buy hand-crafted replicas of world-famous paintings. Timeless works by Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and more, each duplicated on canvas with paint by a painter. They look great, actually, and just because they’re not the real thing doesn’t make them worthless; they’re wonderful to have. But still, they’re not the real thing.

A Most Violent Year is the cinematic version of that. It's an impressively rendered facsimile of the great films (Organized Crime movies in particular) by 1970s American auteurs like Coppola, Scorsese, and Lumet. It's impossible not to admire yet has no singular distinction of itself. More academic than artistic, A Most Violent Year plays like the most impressive student film of all time, with writer/director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) exhibiting a vast knowledge of cinematic technique – visual, narrative, dialogue, and themes – but lacking an individual voice.

Most notably taking his cues from the films of Sidney Lumet – a director of New York based stories in which decent working class people struggle to live by their ideals in the face of corruption – Chandor’s A Most Violent Year tells a tale set in 1981 NYC in which immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) finds his efforts to build a fuel transport service violently thwarted by crooked competitors. As a relative newcomer, he’s also an easy target for a New York detective (David Oyelowo, Selma) looking to infiltrate this criminalized industry. Morales is the one guy trying to do right, yet he’s the one everybody’s trying to take down.

Not helping matters is the fact that Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar) is the daughter of a former Brooklyn crime boss. This instantly throws more suspicion Abel’s way, especially as Anna’s the one keeping the books. It all starts to come to a head when violent hits are put out on Abel’s truck drivers. The fuel is stolen, and the perpetrator (who could be any number of his rivals, or a joint effort by several) remains unknown. It becomes increasingly more difficult (and seemingly impossible) to not fight back with illegal means as formerly trustworthy partners also begin to back out on Abel. The life he’s built is falling apart and he’s scrambling to save it.

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As someone who loves ambitious throwbacks, it’s odd to take a posture of nitpicking – and yet here I am doing it. There’s a fine line between inspired homage and carbon copy, and Chandor ends up on the wrong side of it. This is all staged and calculated to a self-conscious fault. The dialogue alone is littered with clichés that seem copied-and-pasted from some “Organized Crime Movies for Beginners” manual. Lines like (to list just a few) “This is terrible for me and my business”, “Is that funny to you?”, or “You stole from me!!!” – all delivered in either hushed or enraged Mafioso tones – border on parody (yet too earnest to be laughable), as do many scenes and scenarios. David Chase and James Gandolfini made these staples fresh and authentic in The Sopranos; here, it feels like Chandor is showing Isaac scenes from The Godfather on-set and then directing, “There, do it exactly like that.”

The symbolism, too, feels forced. The title refers to the year its set, 1981, which saw a record number of rapes and murders in New York City. We hear this alluded to both directly by police as well as in background news reports. It’s supposed to add resonance and depth to Abel’s struggle, but the two never feel connected. This story could happen at any time, and so the 1981 setting adds little. Then you have more specific metaphors like Abel’s full name. His last, Morales, carries the meaning of "strong morals" while his first, Abel, recalls the Bible's first murder victim – by a brother, no less. While the symbolism may not hit us over the head (Abel, for example, has a more Spanish pronunciation here), it's indicative of a filmmaker who's trying too hard because he doesn’t have something more specific to say himself.

Yet while Chandor’s effort may not be fully realized, it’s no fault of his superb collaborators who are working at top form. Oscar Isaac shines most forcefully, with his Abel drawing admirable comparisons to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. By fueling Abel with visceral dimensions of passion, paranoia, control, and conflict, Isaac achieves what Chandor misses: appropriating the right influences while still making it his own.

The rest of the ensemble brings a riveting energy to the drama’s building tension – including another serious turn from comic Albert Brooks following his scary portrayal in Drive, as well as a career-boosting performance from Elyes Gabel (World War Z) as one of Abel’s ill-fated drivers – with only one surprising weak-link: the normally spectacular Jessica Chastain. As Abel’s Brooklyn-born wife, Chastain’s accent is unnatural and inconsistent, and her melodramatics overcompensate. If Isaac’s Abel is the microcosm of a standard the film itself never fully achieves, Chastain’s Anna is the microcosm of where it actually lands: doing everything right but failing to fully authenticate.

SEE ALSO: It's Hard to Get Inside Llewyn Davis, but It's Worthwhile

Shot across all five of the city’s boroughs, cinematographer Bradford Young uses the New York landscape as an epic backdrop, visualized in pseudo-sepia tones for a strong sense of time and place. Together with editor Ron Patane and composer Alex Ebert, these artists help Chandor conjure a strong sense of atmosphere, punctuated by a couple of riveting chase sequences that serve as the film’s highpoints.

To get the best sense of how Chandor just barely misses the target, another recent movie serves as a good contrast. David Finchers Gone Girl is, in many respects, a Hitchcock homage. Many of Hitch’s techniques to build suspense are on display, and no doubt Fincher would willingly cop to them. Yet despite those tropes, Gone Girl remains a David Fincher film. From first to last, it’s driven by his own aesthetic stamp and sensibility.

Conversely, it’s hard to pinpoint any personal quality that Chandor brings to this material other than being a straight-A student of America's last great cinematic age. Yet so precisely crafted is his effort that, rather than being a failure, A Most Violent Year ends up being a promise of great movies yet to come, and one that can be appreciated in the here-and-now – even with the nitpicking.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

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  • Drugs/Alcohol: Tobacco and alcohol use is depicted in a few scenes, generally in a casual context.
  • Language/Profanity: All profanities used, most commonly the F-word and S-word throughout. The A-word is also used on occasion, as well as several instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. A few sexually vulgar expressions are also used.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Chastain wears a low-cut revealing dress in a couple of scenes. Moments of kissing.
  • Violence/Other: Several instances of men being brutally beaten, pistol-whipped, etc., with graphic/bloody depiction. Scenes of gunplay, gun violence, also with graphic depiction of wounds. A man is shot in the head, killed, and graphically depicted. A home invasion scene that involves a violent (but not lethal or graphic) exchange. A scene involving a child with a loaded gun. An animal is shot and killed. 

Publication date: January 2, 2015