Synopsis: A Most Violent Year is a searing crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. From acclaimed writer/director J.C. Chandor, and starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, this gripping story plays out within a maze of rampant political and industry corruption plaguing the streets of a city in decay.
Release Date: December 31, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Writer/director J.C. Chandor went from the wordy, all-star production of Margin Call to the practically silent one-man show of All is Lost in the blink of an eye. The one thing that both of those films had in common was the fact that they were both incredibly boring. While Chandor’s newest effort, A Most Violent Year, is a big improvement over his earlier films, there’s still quite a bit of tedium involved.
Set in New York City during the crime-infested year of 1981, A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) as Abel Morales, a heating oil company owner who makes plans to purchase a riverfront refinery that will allow him to grab a bigger piece of the Big Apple’s energy industry – a business that is traditionally run by the mob. As Abel struggles with different lenders to get all of his financing in place, his transportation trucks keep getting hijacked, costing him thousands in stolen revenue. Additionally, a hungry district attorney named Lawrence (Selma‘s David Oyelowo) starts sniffing around Abel’s company’s financial records, accusing him of tax fraud. As if that is not enough, Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty), catches an armed prowler outside of their home, causing Abel to wonder who is trying to intimidate them into backing out of their real estate deal. Through all of this, Abel just wants to find a way to legitimately build his honest business without having to resort to a life of crime himself.
J.C. Chandor does a decent job of creating the right mood for A Most Violent Year, but doesn’t provide the story to back it up. The chief influence behind the film is completely evident; there are so many elements of The Godfather in A Most Violent Year that, if a few of the roles were recast with familiar faces from Coppola’s famous mob trilogy, the whole thing might seem like The Godfather: Part IV. It moves just as slowly as a film from the trilogy, too, but that’s where the differences become clear; while The Godfather features a slow buildup with a big payoff, A Most Violent Year just plods along without any point. The movie has the feel of a tense crime thriller but, plot-wise, it’s a snoozer. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The film is not a total wash; there are some things to like about A Most Violent Year. The film is very well cast, with all of the actors and actresses trying their mightiest to bring the script that is given to them to life. On the production design and costuming end, a great deal of attention is paid to making the film feel authentic, and the movie genuinely feels like it’s actually taking place in the early eighties without making itself into a parody of the era. And finally, there are moments when Chandor manages to manufacture some pure tension in the film, such as in one particular scene in which a fed-up Abel plays cat-and-mouse with a would-be criminal on a moving train. However, this is all window dressing. There’s plenty of garnish in A Most Violent Year, but there’s very little meat.
J.C. Chandor’s script for A Most Violent Year is the biggest weakness in the film; not even the stellar performances provided by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain can save the movie from the mediocre screenplay. Chandor’s script is wordy and repetitive, relying so much on conversation and discussion that the viewer actually longs for the quiet thoughtfulness of All is Lost. Every so often there are action sequences – a car chase here, a foot race there – but they are so infrequent and last for such a short period of time that they only whet the appetite of the audience for something that doesn’t appear; there’s just enough action for the viewer to think that the movie is starting to get good, only to have the plot come to a screeching halt by an extended conversation about what just happened. The dialogue is easy enough to follow, but there’s way too much telling and very little showing. Film is a visual medium, but Chandor’s screenplay for A Most Violent Year prefers to explain everything with words.
The most apparent influence of The Godfather on A Most Violent Year is found in the cinematography. Shot by director of photography Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Selma), the film’s look is cold and heartless while still retaining a humanistic quality. Young uses a heavy palette of neutral colors, burying the picture in greys and browns with just a hint of primary colors to accentuate important aspects of the frame, things like the red of Anna’s lipstick or the blue of a passing NYPD car. The film also utilizes plenty of natural backlighting mixed with calculated shadowing to give the picture an almost smoky quality. All of these photographic elements give the film a very dated feel, but that’s the point; it takes place in 1981, and Young’s cinematography reflects that fact. A Most Violent Year looks like a period gangster movie, even if it doesn’t completely act like one.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): J.C. Chandor
- Screenwriter(s): J.C. Chandor
- Cast: Oscar Isaac (Abel Morales)Jessica Chastain (Anna Morales)David Oyelowo (Lawrence) Aleesandro Nivola (Peter Forente)Albert Brooks (Andrew Walsh)
- Editor(s): Ron Patane
- Cinematographer: Bradford Young
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Alex Ebert
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA