Set during 1981 in New York City’s titular and ill-fated stretch of history, A Most Violent Year properly if less-than-excitingly chronicles the struggle of self-made tycoon Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). As one of the city’s leading providers of oil, Abel, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and their daughters have been afforded a hard-earned life of luxury, that is until competitors’ shady behind-the-scenes business practices threaten to upend Abel’s very livelihood. Determined to maintain the integrity he’s trademarked throughout years prior – and with an earth-moving real estate deal hanging in the balance – the man’s pacifist options become increasingly limited as “Nice guys finish last” begins to hit entirely too close to home.
Although the film’s overall resonance diminished almost immediately after I left the theater, there’s at least something to be said about A Most Violent Year‘s subjective originality, if nothing else. While I thought I was in for something a little gritter and over-exaggerated, what Chandor’s script provides for is a heaping dose of nigh-procedural laced with barely tangible conflict. It’s quite bizarre given the weight of what’s placed on Isaac’s Abel’s shoulders, his refusal to succumb to basic retaliatory measures ringing sillier and sillier as things get worse and worse (and worse). It’s easy to respect the man for putting his principles on a pedestal – the practice is the easiest way of living honestly. Putting your family and entrepreneurial legacy at risk via ham-fisted stubbornness though? Foolish indeed, Mr. Morales.
Another grievance I feel the need to air has to deal with the film’s overall lack of narrative urgency. Despite the direness of what’s at stake, tension never remains prominent outside of when a minor character pops off a round or two from their god-forsaken firearm. Key individuals, events and torturous circumstantial nonsense are constantly at-play, yet the ordinary conveyance of it all fails to reinvent or reinvigorate a formula benchmarked by similarly-focused re-tellings of “lost” sects of history.
Chandor definitely displays his fast-blossoming chops as a storyteller, that’s for certain, however the manner in which his latest is presented lacks the gravity promised by an agreeably hyperbolic title. It certainly deserves credit in the realm of personal filmmaking, what with its notably unexplored subject earning points for being presented and nothing more. The performances are fine despite Chastain’s present-enough but ultimately thankless supporting turn, monotony’s broken up when it has to be and details surrounding the overarching bane of Mr. Morales’ existence are coherent – it’s just a shame that the proceedings don’t amount to anything substantial.