Sunday 11 September 2016

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A gritty business drama, A Most Violent Year is a pragmatic story of commerce and crime coming together in a brewing mix. The film promises much, but ultimately misses its boiling point.

It's 1981 in a violence-plagued New York City. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant who has done well running the growing Standard Heating Oil company, having purchased the business from the father of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is now taking the biggest risk of his career, trying to close the deal on an expensive river front industrial property to further boost his business advantage. The Morales family move into their dream new house, but all is not well.  Abel's adversaries are circling, and the Standard delivery trucks are being repeatedly hijacked and their cargo of oil stolen. One driver, an ambitious young man called Julian (Elyes Gabel) is badly roughed up in one such heist.

Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) turn to District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) to try and identify the aggressors, but Lawrence is no help. In fact, the DA's office is about to charge Standard Oil with various counts of fraudulent business practices. An attempted break-in at Abel's house is followed by more truck hijackings, with the level of violence increasing to include shootouts on the freeway. Anna grows restless, the bankers get cold feet, and suddenly Abel has to face the prospect of potentially losing everything he has ever worked for.

Directed by J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year leaves the vague impression that it should be much better than it is. There is a thread of sloppiness that runs through the film, from a script (written by Chandor) that sounds remarkably stilted to a slipshod editing job that all too readily truncates scenes prematurely. Key characters, including the lawyer Walsh and most of Abel's business competitors, are barely provided with any screen time despite their increasing importance to the story. Instead the film tilts towards over-investing in individuals like Julian, who are ultimately not as relevant. The film ends with too many loose ends flailing in the riverfront breeze.

Visually the film captures a pleasing late 1970s / early 1980s dour aesthetic, but the attempt at industrial bleakness also borders on sparse.

Where the film does succeed is in presenting an inflection point in a struggle between good and evil on the battlefield of a single industry and more specifically one business. While the 1970s are associated with a crime-infested and dangerous New York City, by the time the late 1980s rolled around the city had undergone a remarkable transformation into a sparkling modern day and relatively safe metropolis. A Most Violent Year sits at the transformational crossroads, Abel's stubborn insistence on a different way of doing things representing a forthcoming societal sea change.

Most of the better moments come thanks to a terrific performance by Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales. He finds the essence of a man determined to play the business games as ethically as possible within the confines of a corrupt industry. Isaac's dark, intense eyes are essential in conveying a businessman carrying the weight of the future on his shoulder and fending off appeals from all around him to dive into distasteful sleaze and increased violence.

The pacing and tone are also generally good. The film maintains steady momentum, Abel and Anna dealing with one misfortune after another, and creating some of their own strife through a tumultuous lack of alignment. The rising tension serves to highlight the film's shortcomings, with some of the good set-up work going to waste, Chandor too often failing to deliver the intellectual punch when needed.

A marginally rewarding drama, A Most Violent Year is also an opportunity wasted.

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