Winter of Our Discontent: A Most Violent Year

12/30/2014 7:32 PM |
Photos Courtesy of A24

A Most Violent Year
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Opens December 31

J.C. Chandor’s cautionary New York story is set in 1981, a highwater mark in the number of felonies committed in the city and, for the people behind the stats, a terrifying low point, period. A couple of years later, a New York Times brief quotes the NYPD as believing they had finally “turned the corner” on the crime surge, but the prospect of a safer hometown seemed improbable to many residents (whose ranks hit their lowest postwar total as the decade began). You couldn’t know for sure what came next, but part of what distinguishes Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the protagonist of A Most Violent Year, is his tragic optimism and scruples as he attempts to expand his heating oil company while opting out of gangster tactics.

It’s territory exhaustively covered in mob movies or urban coming-of-age dramas, and memorably in James Gray’s The Yards; Chandor’s chief ambition here seems to be tell the story again extremely clearly. Thus he launches A Most Violent Year, suffused in dire wintry colors, with the ticking-clock suspense of a deadline: Abel must come up with cash to close a real estate deal for a new site or lose a ruinously high deposit. He’s already reeling from regular hijackings of his delivery trucks, and he inexplicably shares his precarious state of affairs with a competitor. By the time his company is being investigated for corruption (by a miscast David Oyelowo), it’s fair to wonder how such a flatfooted, selectively naïve businessman got as far as he did, even with such great hair.

Chandor has at least one pat answer for that, in the person of a (well-coiffed) Lady Macbeth in waiting, Jessica Chastain’s Anna, a mobster’s daughter who helpfully shoots a deer for Abel after their car cripples it. Their marital tug-ofwar, Abel’s travails, and an overblown plotline involving one of his drivers, are all followed with solemn deliberation, but not unlike Foxcatcher (and even American Hustle, to which Chandor seems to be attempting a corrective), the upward-mobility drama gets bogged down in the on-message momentousness of its dialogue and performances (cf. Margin Call), and lacks actual immediacy. The writing falls short of rich language to match the hefty tragedy (will anyone be quoting its lines a week from now?), and its year of living dangerously is most interesting on paper only.