The first thing I should note is that the cast is excellent: Oscar Isaac is a new actor to me, and I think he’s great. He does a lot of subtle work with a role that is intentionally under-written. Jessica Chastain has a strong supporting part, which she plays with a perfect steeliness and fire. David Oyelowo is fine in the limited role of the Brooklyn DA. And Albert Brooks proves to be a great minor player in a film that would seem much poorer in the absence of his wry, assured presence.
The story: In 1981, Abel Morales owns a company that sells heating oil to New York City houses. This scrappy rags-to-riches immigrant just bought a palatial home, and is about to buy a fuel plant that'll ensure the growth of his business. Yet Abel’s life is turned completely upside-down as he tackles two problems simultaneously: the Brooklyn DA investigates the home oil industry, focusing on Morales, whose company is targeted for violent attacks and truck hijackings that cost him stability as well as tens of thousands of dollars (1981 $, mind you).
Will Abel renounce his good-hearted ways as his misfortunes worsen and the tide gets high, or will he stick to his guns? Can hard work and noble intentions win out in an utterly corrupt world?
No matter how you feel about the overall story, AMVY has many fine qualities. The impressive visuals neatly capture character scenes as well as they do the few action sequences that spice up what is otherwise a quiet, staid narrative (this is not an action pic). The performances are also fine – every actor makes the most of it, and you get invested in all these players...
The picture has a slow pace that feels both like a throwback to older films and like a confident statement on the part of J.C. Chandor, the writer-director. Similarly, the movie’s tone and mood are perfectly in-tune with the 1980’s NYC setting: old-school systems clash against new attitudes, a poor immigrant’s idea of the American Dream runs face-first into the evil side of American business/bureaucracy, and danger lurks in every doorway or on every street.
I walked out of A Most Violent Year (the title always reminds me of this song) without any excitement for the movie. I liked the actors, I loved the look and feel of the picture – slowly building up characters, conflicts, and tension, all while advancing its basic story. I liked so many aspects of the picture... and I felt no real joy for it, just some respect toward the cast and crew.
It’s easy to identify the big issues with this otherwise fine effort. For starters, Chandor’s tale can be accused of feeling fairly one-note – if only in terms of the problems bearing down on the lead and his role’s response. Morales faces an intense rough spell, barraged by incompetence and corruption while he adheres to his moral, conscientious code. I like the build that these events provide, and I appreciate the crucible that it operates as... Yet I can only lose myself for 10 minutes at a time here - then I remember "it’s a movie, and there’s not enough meat to this story."
I was also bothered by the fact that Abel doesn’t try as many solutions as you’d expect from an ambitious, go-getter businessman. There are dozens of ways to address what’s threatening him, and this guy simply talks and then hustles harder. Worse still, when people warn him and push for change – the teamster boss, an employee with PTSD – Morales just responds with a really positive speech and little active effort. The lead character isn’t a hollow salesman – so Chandor wrote him as... stilted? Or simple?
I’m sure that my issues here are attributable to the writing. While people here can speak naturally, without awkward exposition, some dialogue is far too on-the-nose or overt. It’s one thing when minor characters play out as stereotypes. But it’s damn odd to see adults speak as they would to a child, or announce their life’s mission statement during a conversation. Oyelowo’s final scene is perplexing, as if written by a non-human. And Albert Books’ last exchange is just terrible: “You’re right. I’m sorry,” sounds so inadequate, it’s like something out of a precocious teen’s first script.
These aspects broke my suspension of disbelief often, leaving me blasé about a movie filled with good elements. The production, premise, and setting are strong. Abel is played with a great deal of ambiguity for much of the movie's running time, and I loved that; I loved waiting to see what would push him too far, or what secret sin he would reveal. I also wanted more time with the rest of the cast, especially Chastain's Anna - she's kind of a thrilling wildcard, with her ruthless devotion to family and doing whatever needs doing.
But, for a film about an amazing era in my hometown with a protagonist who sounds a lot like one of my own relatives, I should've been constantly engrossed. And I wasn't. QED
I like that AMVY feels claustrophobic so often. I love that many shots occur in enclosed spaces with very contained or narrow light sources – filming from within the cab of a truck really negates a scene set on an open bridge, with a wide sky overhead. I've seen this terrain and it's all so beautiful to look at. Chandor also gets bonus points for including the Twin Towers in the city skyline. I just wish this great cinematography serviced a more robust story...
Maybe A Most Violent Year’s opening scene says it all. About 40 feet past a toll booth, a gas truck is forced to brake due to two stopped cars 10 feet in front of it. Two men step out of those cars, draw guns, and we’re suddenly in the midst of a brutal carjacking. When the criminals steal the truck, they drive straight ahead – and the two cars they just used have magically f--king disappeared. In the opening 3 minutes of the film, which set up the whole narrative storyline, one massive continuity error shows that things here weren’t thoroughly thought through.
I'm not even kidding when I claim that I left the theater, walked a block, and asked my viewing partner: "that wasn't a bad movie, right?" I didn't ask this because I thought that I'd seen a bad movie, it was because I wasn't so sure how good a one I'd seen.
There’s a lot of fine work here. I like slow, moody, quiet films, and I like character studies as well as crime dramas. It’s a shame I wouldn’t give this beyond a B/B-. The closest comparison for me is The Immigrant. Both felt made with older sensibilities in mind, both charted epic struggles set in a unique, well- realized period, and both boasted fine performances, production design, and camerawork. Also, each film was both problematic and overrated.
Well, better luck, uh, next most violent year... I guess...