A Most Violent Year – First you get the money, then you get the power, then you have a film. (Film Review)

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J.C. Chandor excels at pinpointing and extending the single crucial moment that makes or breaks a psyche into powerhouse suspense film that evolves into very contemporary morality tales revolving around a chicken coming home to roost, rather than chance or the turn of a fateful card. IHowever, in each of his three films, there remains the crucial question of motivation unanswered. This is perhaps best hidden in his first film, Margin Call which in a post occupy Wall Street world leans on our contemporary belief that bankers are wankers and hysterical ego throbs at the core of their irrational decisions. But the unanswered question at the heart of All Is Lost, is what the fuck is a seventy-six year old man doing alone in the middle of an unpredictable ocean? We watch Robert Redford immersed in a crises of his own making, but mostly through unpreparedness, rather than a turn of fate, all of which contribute to a lack of clarity around motivation. Now, inside that motivational problem, we have a similar structural issue, with A Most Violent Year.

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Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant in love with the American dream. He’s been through his prerequisite Scarface period, got his business, got his money and got his woman, but now that he’s tipping on the edge of power his competitors are rising up against him. The year is 1981, one of the most violent years in New York’s history, and as Morales sees fit to purchase a piece of prime real estate that will see him able to buy up cheap fuel in the summer months to expand his profit margin in winter, his competitors retaliate with violence against his truck drivers, his salesmen and even his family. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in a dreadfully distracting wig) is a mob boss’ daughter and she wants to go the family way to take care of this problem. But Abel is determined to go straight. Over the crucial thirty-day period in which he has to come up with the balance of the payment on the land, we find Abel caught in a growing tension between his wife, his lawyer, the D.A. (David Oyelowo) determined to clean up the city, his competitors and the men committing the violent acts against his employees and his family.

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The obvious problem here, straight up is the unholy connection Chandor has created with The Godfather that does A Most Violent Year no favours. The film really does look like Chandor asked himself “What if Michael did go straight?” and subsequently got smashed in front of reruns of The Wire and wrote the screen play in twenty-four hours. Instead of  the freshness of perspective that worked in All Is Lost or the tapping into zeitgeist that worked in Margin Call, the motivational gaps Chandor creates are filled here with a harkening back to films that, while most certainly are classics, are too one-dimensional to fly over forty years later. And it permeates everything, from clichéd single room mob boss meetings where the luckless protagonist makes a call to “just stop” through ominous barber shops there to replace red and white chequered Italian restaurants, right into Isaacs performance which disturbingly looks like an Al Pacino rip off. Thus we are left with a soul-less protagonist in Abel, whose motivations are so completely alien you can’t work out how he got himself into this situation and become less and less interested in how he will get himself out.

Incidently, how he does get himself out, is a plot twist so deeply silly it renders the bulk of the film useless and serves only to make our hero even more anemic.

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However, this is a J.C. Chandor film, and he is very clever at making the holes in his scripts redundant due to stunning directorial techniques that make all his films great to watch, even if the watcher is nearly always left scratching their head. It is beautifully styled, from Abels camel-hair coat through to the decaying city-scapes that so thoroughly represent New York of that era. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) spent 2014 on films that depict other eras, and his early 80’s new York has a shiny grey over it, like a transparent chrome sheen. Isaac and Chastain are glamorously dressed, constantly at odds with their surrounds, in a superb show of privilege mixing easily with poverty-stricken subordinates who “could have what I have but haven’t worked hard enough.” A Most Violent Year offers up a depressed New York that looks more like a prison than the pinnacle of the American Dream and this sits well against the twists and turns in Abel’s morality. Then there is an era-consistent sound track that leans back into Miami Vice by Alex Ebert, but again suffers a little from the connection to Scarface.

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Chandor would have been better to posit his protagonist along side the after effects of those films, rather than appropriate them for effect, as he is a subtle director whose delicate nuances are bludgeoned to death by the ghosts of films past. He’s by far a better director than he is writer, but his beautiful dialogue and his ability to drag out those crucial moments of suspense trick us into thinking those plot holes are deliberate only to realise his directorial sign posts have no narrative arc upon which to hang. Like many successful male film writers, he can’t write women for shit and Chastain’s character reminded me all to often of the woefully lost opportunities his writing created in Demi More’s character’s in Margin Call. One gets the feeling all the time that Chandor knows what he wants to say, that he has a fine mind, but he can’t quite get there.

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From what I can tell his next film (Deepwater Horizon) includes his talents as director but he’s employed another writer, so it will be very exciting to see what comes out of that. A Most Violent Year is a good film, definitely worth seeing, but it’s super high ratings remind me again that 2014 wasn’t the year many claimed it was, and that while it may have been Oscar Isaac’s year, that was exemplified in Inside Llewyn Davis.

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