A Most Violent Year is Mostly Mediocre

Coming off his critically acclaimed sea adventure All Is Lost, writer and director J.C. Chandor follows  it up with a modest, compelling crime drama set in New York City. A Most Violent Year follows Immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he tries to capture the American Dream while trying to build his own business empire. Things do become complicated when he realizes he is surrounded by corruption and moral decay. With pressure from his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) and several business associates, Abel must decide what is more important in life: his business’ success or his moral consciousness?

Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year is a well made film that feels and looks authentic in its style and approach. Set in 1981, J.C. Chandor has inspired to capture the same spirit and grit of the quintessential New York crime films made popular by Sidney Lumet and others in the 1970s. A Most Violent Year also has obvious parallels to The Godfather saga as Chandor has drawn upon the same themes and lyrical depiction of a young man trying to navigate through his personal and business life while doing his best to keep his morals intact in this unforgiving, ruthless society. As proven with his other films, J.C. Chandor is a great storyteller that easily draws the audience into his cinematic world. Everything is well calculated and his efforts for A Most Violent Year prove to be worth while. It is mostly gripping and definitely thought provoking. The film is entirely composed of tense discussions and conversations. We see the struggle of maintaing honest relationships between husband and wife, employer and employe, competing business owners, and of course between lawyers. Chandor has smartly crafted a slow burning business oriented thriller that shines a light on every decision, every opportunity, and certainly every risk one might be willing or not willing to take. As great as that sounds; unfortunately, Chandor and the film still misses out on a truly great film.

Sadly A Most Violent Year never becomes completely satisfying. As we follow Abel as he goes through meetings after meetings we realize that the stakes might be high, but the characters and the situations become painfully dull. The pace, which is tremendously muted and flat, also brings this film to a screeching halt. As scene after scene begin to drag we become disinterested in what is going on. We start to lose connections with the characters especially in Abel and his wife. They are obviously the most important characters in the movie and they become shockingly dull and even in some case one dimensional. In the end Mr. and Mrs. Morales are simply unmemorable and they just fade into crime ridden urban landscape. Ultimately this leads an ending and resolution that is overshadowed by the tedious repetition that puts this movie into a no win situation.

What helps the film a great deal are the outstanding performances from the cast. Although the characters (especially Mr. and Mrs. Morales) are drowning in their own smugness, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain among others are still able to give layered performances. Isaac is perfectly subtle in his role as Abel and has captured the struggle and grief of Abel wonderfully. By following his journey through meetings and decisions, we get to see Isaac channel the realities of becoming successful at the expense of his own ethics. Despite all of this, Abel Morales is undone by the writing of his character. He still somehow manages to be bland. The same can be said of the great Jessica Chastain. She delivers a performance that we just come to expect from her by now. There is no denying that she is well suited in the role of Anna, but again the character is still underwhelming. A part from three great scenes between her and Abel, Anna’s character is left in the background. Her character is left mostly to complain and voice her concerns. For the majority of the film she just becomes the typical matriarch trophy wife that worries about her man, family and business until she decides to take matters in her own hands. Arguably the best part of the film comes from the film’s B story. It still thematically deals with the pursuit of an American Dream but it hits in a much more meaningful and emotional way thanks to an excellent performance by the young Elyes Gabel. Gabel plays Julian, an employee of Abel who inspires to be successful in America. His character becomes the only character worth following and makes for a refreshing counterpart to the entitled Abel and Anna. Julian’s story arch is gut-wrenching and perfectly captures what the film wants to say.

A Most Violent Year still provides an interesting look at the pursuit of the American Dream and the struggles with morals in a mostly corrupted society. However, the film still doesn’t manage to make a innovative or completely satisfying portrait of a troubled man. J.C. Chandor and company fail to make a memorable experience that stays with you and that is the film’s biggest crime.

The cast includes: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), David Oyelowo (Selma), Elyes Gabel (World War Z), and Albert Brooks (Drive). It was written and directed by J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost).

2.5 out of 4 stars

-By Louie Coruzzolo

In case you missed our video review for this week, check it out below:

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