****WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER REVIEW!!****
A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a story of corruption amidst the home heating oil business in and around New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city's history. The protagonists for the film are Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has lived the American dream and built up a home heating oil company, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father sold Abel the home heating business he now owns, and who also had some shady organized crime connections.
Due to the great talents involved in the making of this film, with J.C. Chandor directing and Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac starring, I was really looking forward to seeing A Most Violent Year. Unfortunately, I was mightily disappointed once I saw it. The main problem with this film is not the acting, or the directing, but rather with the story itself. It is so devoid of any dramatic tension or interest that it feels like the film is perpetually just on the precipice of a dramatic breakthrough or an inciting incident, but that breakthrough or incident never occurs. So we are left just watching things unfold but with no real attachment to the characters or events. The film is dramatically vacant.
Another issue with this film, is that putting 'violent' in the title is so decidedly inaccurate that A Most Violent Year can now be considered one of the most misleading film titles of all time, right alongside The Never Ending Story. The film sets itself up and creates expectations with a title like that. The expectations for viewers are that this is going to be a film about the grittier, darker and nastier aspects of life in the home heating oil business in New York. That expectation is never met, not even in the sense of having Abel avoid the inferno of violence that blazes around him. There isn't really any violence at all, at least not of substance, not to or from Abel or anyone else. There isn't even the true threat of violence, only the possibility of an unspoken threat of a threat of violence. I am certainly not someone who needs violence and brutality in a film to like it, but what I do need is some drama to drive the story, and violence as a dramatic vehicle was desperately needed here.
In terms of moral decisions and dramatic tension, at the end of the day, Abel is corrupt enough to use illegal money that Anna stole in order to continue his business, but not corrupt enough to use violence. That isn't exactly the most powerful of dramatic choices for a film, nor is it very insightful or informative in terms of giving the film a distinct perspective. This film feels like it is shot just out of range of a much more interesting and better film…like a Goodfellas for example. The film will inevitably, and unfavorably, be compared with Goodfellas. Goodfellas is set in the same time period, has a similar theme, style and relationships, but with a much more interesting story, and oddly enough, is inhabited by more believable people. A Most Violent Year has compelling actors, and potentially compelling characters, but those characters aren't put into any situations that are remotely compelling.
In terms of the acting, Jessica Chastain is as good an actress as there is on the planet, and her work here is engaging and as always, of high quality, so much so that you ache for the film to be more about her than anyone else. Chastain brings with her a luminosity that radiates through her every moment on screen, as well as a vivid yet subtle skill and craft. The character of Anna seems to be the only character in the entire film who has any 'balls' whatsoever, whether she has to kill a deer or take care of business, she brings a very specific point of view, and makes sure the job gets done. Chastain's Anna is a driving and powerful force to be reckoned with, much like the actress herself and her substantial gifts.
Oscar Isaac as Abel, doesn't fair quite as well as his co-star. I think one of the major problems with Isaac's performance is not with his obvious talent, but with the script itself. The character of Abel is sort of sold to us as being like Michael Corleone before he gets involved in the family business in The Godfather (Abel even wears a long camel hair coat reminiscent of the one Michael Corleone wears in The Godfather ). But that sort of internal conflict needs a big moment in order for a transformation to take place. A Most Violent Year lacks that dramatic transformation of Abel, he never chooses what life he will live. In order for a true dramatic transformation to occur, the stakes for Abel need to be much higher. It should have been very clear, either choose violence and maintain your business, family and standing in the world, or choose to be a good man and lose everything you worked so hard to get, including your wife and kids. That choice is never clearly proposed in the film and so we get middle of the road choices and lukewarm storytelling. The other thing that The Godfather's Michael Corleone had going for him was that Al Pacino was playing him. Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, but he is not even in the ballpark of an all-time great like Al Pacino. My one thought about Oscar Isaac as an actor, is that I think he isn't quite ready to carry a film like this just yet. That is not to say that he won't be able to at some point, just that he isn't able to do that now. He lacks a certain charisma and power on screen that a role like this demands. He, unlike Chastain (and Pacino), does not have an incandescent inferno raging within him that illuminates his being. He is certainly a very talented guy, no question, but he has an absence of gravitas, which is what a role like Abel so desperately needs. I have no doubt he has many great performances ahead of him, but this is one that was more considerable than he was able to manage at this point in his career.
In conclusion, A Most Violent Year is a major disappointment, especially considering how much I loved J.C. Chandor's previous two films, All is Lost and and Margin Call. Obviously, I am a huge fan of Chastain's work and thought Isaac was very good in Inside Llewyn Davis. Sadly, in A Most Violent Year, these tremendously gifted pieces didn't come together to make a great, or even good film. With all of that said though, I would classify this film as a noble failure. Noble in that it attempts to be a serious and thoughtful drama, something that is in short supply in cinema these days, and a failure because it needed a much more compelling story and script to take full advantage of the ample talents brought together to make this film.
FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , AMERICAN SNIPER , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .