A Most Violent Year is not the next great mob movie it's been advertised as; it's a thoughtful character drama with a solid cast - no more, no less.
A Most Violent Year takes a look at the struggles of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious and hard-working immigrant who is trying to build a successful oil delivery business during the winter of 1981 - one of the most violent times in the history of NYC. Just as Abel is about to close on a property that will exponentially increase both his business and fortune, he finds the ground under him suddenly falling away.
A group of hijackers starts targeting his trucks; rival crews are muscling his salesmen; the FBI is combing through his books, looking for any hint of corruption; and his wife Anna (Jessia Chastain) is always one step away from calling on her mobster brother and father to handle situations in all the wrong ways.
Abel tries to use his smarts and well-measured temperance to swim all these deep waters without drowning; but even the most determined swimmer can only tread water for so long.
The new film from All Is Lost director J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year is a meditative look at the struggle for the American Dream, with a peppering of classic mob movie flavor. In the end though, the film is less Godfather and more slow-burn character drama. That's all to say: those hoping for a thrilling mob caper flick are probably going to be disappointed.
With All Is Lost, Chandor put Robert Redford onscreen alone and made it into a compelling drama. A Most Violent Year offers much the same feeling of stillness as All Is Lost, which both works for and against the film. There is a ominous foreboding atmosphere established early on, which makes '80s NYC truly feel like a concrete jungle, where terrible things could happen at any given moment.
The cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma, Pariah) brings his signature look of vibrant colors set against a washed-out and dreary sepia tone, giving the film a look of classic '70s era mob movies without losing the visual pop modern audiences expect. The mis-en-scene composition (especially in regards to light and darkness), certain metaphoric color schemes, and alterations of wide, expansive and tight constricted spaces adds further depth and implication to story being told.
That story (which Chandor also wrote) may be overly subtle (read: obtuse) for viewers used to more straightforward mob genre tales, but it is an interesting study of human nature within the capitalist race. Below the surface, the script of A Most Violent Year also fashions some strong metaphoric and/or thematic ties to the days and times we now live in - specifically the slow revelation that the pristine ideal of the American Dream is actually a murky reality.
On the other hand, there is so much implication in subplots and character arcs beyond Abel's own story (a fair number of scenes abandon him to follow other characters) that the whole thing becomes a bit convoluted. Keeping track of who's who, and what each character's subtext or implied nature means to the larger narrative gets very hard to discern.
By the time things reach a climatic "chase scene," the whole film takes on such a surreal and slightly abstract feel that it's hard to call what follows "resolution," or to say that movie satisfies in the way of payoff. A Most Violent Year is very much "literary cinema" - and if there's one thing literary novels are NOT known for, it's neat little endings that leave everything easily summed up and explained.
The performances of the cast are what holds things together, though some are stronger than others. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is a bit dry as Abel, not quite able to pull off that Michael Corleone descent into darkness with the same slow-burn disintegration as Pacino. If A Most Violent Year has one big criticism against it, it's that it fails to convey the full intensity of what it is to try and be a good honest man when the entire world around you is anything but. Without that linchpin, the deeper points of the movie feel more muted than they should.
Jessica Chastain carries her end and some of Isaac's as mob daughter princesses, Anna. Much like Pacino in Godfather, she is able to exude menace and wild unpredictability through a seemingly calm, composed veneer. As the proverbial live-wire, it's Anna who keeps things interesting, as we have no idea how she will react to things - or worse, what ideas she will push into Abel's head. As far as "Lady Macbeths" go, Chastain is a winner, and the movie would lose what flavor it has without her.
Secondary players like Albert Brooks (Drive), David Oyelowo (Selma), Alessandro Nivola (The Company), Peter Gerety (The Wire), Glenn Fleshler (Boardwalk Empire), and Elyes Gabel (World War Z) all get meaty enough roles playing morally gray figures caught up in Abel's mission - though the film itself doesn't use any of them for very distinctive purposes. They all kind of meander in and out as the story itself meanders through the harsh trials Abel endures; they're not bad, not standout, just kind of there, bolstering their respective roles.
In the end, A Most Violent Year is not the next great mob movie it's been advertised as; it's a thoughtful character drama with a solid cast - no more, no less. Definitely not something to rush out and see in theaters, but if you're a fan of the actors (or love even the slightest taste of crime drama genre) then give it a chance on home viewing.
A Most Violent Year is now playing in theaters. It is 125 minutes long and is Rated R for language and some violence.