A Most Violent Year - Online Review

'Chandor really struggles to make an exciting film out of a set up where the lead is devoutly going to avoid several of the things that can make such films exciting'

J.C. Chandor could hardly have had a better start to his feature writing/directing career. Margin Call is close to perfect. I haven't seen All Is Lost but it was reviewed positively by Ben on this very blog and did well at the festivals, if not the end of year awards. For his third effort, Chandor turns to 1980s New York and A Most Violent Year, a film which left me wondering if he is about to become a talent who suffers from heightened expectations.

A Most Violent Year is not a terrible film. It looks great, it has a fantastic lead performance from Oscar Isaac, great support from Jessica Chastain and a good pitch: during the most violent year in the city's history, oil dealer Abel (Isaac) attempts to stay on the straight and narrow whilst his competitors (or someone else) try to derail his business through illegal means.

The problem is that Chandor really struggles to make an exciting film out of a set up where the lead is devoutly going to avoid several of the things that can make such films exciting. It doesn't take a gigantic leap to place Abel on a similar arc to Michael Corleone, slowly being pulled down into internal and external struggles, where various influences push him further towards a criminal enterprise he is already reluctantly a part of. One of the fascinating aspects of the film is that Abel is already on a decidedly dodgy legal footing, pursued by David Oyelowo's DA. Scenes where Abel protests (and apparently wholly believes) his honesty are followed by moments of him squireling documents away from police reach under his mansion. Chastain looms in the background, threatening to unleash her father (some sort of local gangster?). When Abel walks into a meeting of local oil dealers and tells them to 'stop... just stop', he is surely aware his language could be the plea of innocence or the threat of violence.

That should all be fascinating, but Chandor never succeeds in making the Drama that replaces the crime and the action compelling. There's hugely little payoff, for one thing, the only sub-plot that gets definitively finished being the one involving a trucker (Elyes Gabel) who has been previously robbed. Chandor loves a metaphor and you wonder if Julian (Gabel) stands in for the other honest folk Abel wants to stand with, but who lack his money, influence and retained lawyers. It's a nice thought, but it adds little to the success of the narrative.

Meanwhile, the director focuses too often on scenes that add little. Abel is obsessively pursuing the purchase of a refinery because he 'needs to own it' for him to feel successful in business (another bit of narrative irony: Anna (Chastain) is central to the business but Abel categorically does not own her). It should be a minor character illustration, but instead it becomes a major focus. Other elements lose out. There's little confrontation with Lawrence (Oyelowo), for example, and Abel's competitors and the perpetrators of the crimes against him are hardly seen, with only Alessandro Nivola given even a little to do. More importantly, Abel and Anna's relationship gets few moments to show the obvious crackle between them (though a scene on a highway is good). Think of this sort of power struggle done well (never better recently than in Netflix's House Of Cards) and this is inert by comparison.

The emergent film from all of that is brave, ignoring the genre conventions of the 1960s-1980s gangster film to instead build a character piece around an unknowingly conflicted focal point. It could have worked, could have been compelling and I wanted it to be both, but it simply isn't, with Chandor replacing the missing elements only with substandard drama. His first miss, but still, there's solace in Meat Loaf: two out of three ain't bad.




A Most Violent Year was playing on BlinkBox.


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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