A Most Violent Year – Review

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Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel
Written for the screen and directed by: J.C. Chandor
Metacritic Score: 79
IMDb Score: 7.1
Nominated for One Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain)

Rated R for language and some violence.

Crime films are about as easy to telegraph as comic book movie adaptations. You have the humble beginnings of being a thug, then ascending up the food chain of organized crime, then becoming power-hungry until their eventual downfall or succession. Well, A Most Violent Year is not one of those types of crime films. The entirety of the film is centered on a character who tries hard not to go that route, no matter how easy it may seem. So, how exactly does that work? Well, it so happens: it doesn’t.

Abel Morales (Isaac) just signed a contract for a gas terminal in prime real estate in New York City, 1981. As this is going on, he struggles with many different issues stemming from the violence his workers are being subjected to from rival criminals who own other gas terminals, whom are also spilling over to his personal life as well.

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Let’s throw out the one thing everyone wants to give this movie a problem: A Most Violent Year is the worst title for this film because it doesn’t make sense. There is very little violence in this movie and honestly there isn’t much inferred the movie in total. The director has gone to say that the film’s title represents that it’s the character’s “Most Violent Year”, but it doesn’t make that much sense either.

So, on to the review:

A Most Violent Year has the distinction of being a unique movie that unfortunately is riding on that uniqueness to carry it through, which it ultimately doesn’t. The movie is a crime drama, but not really. It’s a gangster flick, but not really. It essentially is a movie that dips its toes in different forays of genre movies and tries to create a wholly different feeling film.

Mind you, the plight and struggle of one man’s need to be morally better than the rest is not new ground for crime movies (or in general). The thing that happens in all those movies is that, eventually, through their own vices or needs to survive, they end up becoming the thing they originally despised.

What’s different with this film is that the character is generally known throughout the movie as a “good, honest guy” while surrounding himself with the elements of a crime movie. It’s a different process that doesn’t bear fruit: you feel zero connection to a character that seemingly plays off as righteous but comes off as weak.

Even when eventually he takes action, Abel Morales (which, by the way, can you find a more obvious name for a character that personifies the “ability to live the American dream” and a “beacon of morality”? Come on, now) still comes off as a character that has no real feeling or depth.

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It’s this singular character that craters the film into a movie that comes off as a meandering, searching for truth mess. Everything about the character, from casting all the way to execution, feels off to the point of being a major distraction.

Oscar Isaac, who was amazing in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis, is put into a role where he plays a hispanic heritage business owner clinging to be good in a place gone horribly corrupt. Let that sink in: he plays a hispanic heritage business owner who looks like Al Pacino in Godfather Part II and literally channels Pacino in every way possible without going to Scarface like lunacy. 

It’s hard to fault Isaac in the movie: he does the best job he can do with a dry and lifeless script. He also, convincingly, plays the character well enough to not be a caricature. He just gets zero help from the story, writing or directing in the film.

Now, some will note that the term “dry and lifeless” can be deliberate in a slow-paced film that earns its stride in the end. That is true in some movies, but J.C. Chandor’s script and direction gives no life to Abel and his plight: in fact, it just comes off as pointless.

Now, J.C. Chandor wrote and directed an excellent movie a few years back called Margin Call, which had an impressive cast and great plot and pace for a film that was about…stock fraud. So, the possibility of him making something as dry as movies about Gas Distribution Company competition in the 80’s was definitely there.

The problem is that Chandor relies too much on standardized tropes in crime movies: the oily gangsters, the amoral love interest, the threat of personal life, the threat of your professional life going down, etc. He essentially created a character that was antithetical to the standards of crime movies and made…a standard crime movie around him.

It’s a shame because one performance is utterly wasted in this film: Jessica Chastain’s performance as Abel’s pampered yet venomous wife is one of her very best. It’s sad because it seems like Chastain was channeling a much more layered and complex character that deserved more time to be explored (and may have helped the main character get depth), but ends up getting some flashy, really well acted scenes that essentially mean nothing to the film.

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But when it comes down to it: A Most Violent Year is a most improbable waste. Though there are some strong performances by both actors and some decent scenes, the film languishes on its morality tale that does little more than feel like you are watching a guy voluntarily smash his head against a wall.

And honestly, 2 hours of self-harm is not something I’m interested in watching.

1.5/5 – A film with good performances, wasted by sloppy direction and a script whose gimmick never bears fruit.

The Wiz Says #23

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