New York City. 1981. It is this most dangerous year in the city's history that earns the film its title in J.C. Chandor's urban tale of the American Dream. The film starts out slowly, with a measured quietness that tumbles to a roar of loud bullets and car chases, made more forceful as they jostle with the unhurried business and domestic affairs-focussed scenes. The snowy parking lots and graffittied subways of a most desolate and generic-looking New York (No wonder, it's actually Detroit), are bathed in a golden light by cinematographer Bradford Young (also behind this year's Selma).
The central violence of the movie does not stem from drug wars or street crimes, and writer-director Chandor misleads by precisely depicting not a gangster, but a man fighting hard not to be one, as he abundantly makes clear. Oscar Isaac has a second go-round as a schlub trying to make it big (Llewyn Davis was his first) and wears the sulking face of a put-upon-man abiding by that national ethos ingrained since grade-school that says honest efforts will be rewarded. He plays Abel Morales, a Spanish-speaking immigrant who through hard work and a marriage now owns and operates an oil-heating company, inherited from his father-in-law, the success of which is threatened when his truck drivers are violently assaulted and the oil barrels stolen. Abel views the hijacking as a sign of his company's growth and suspects foul play from one of his competitors.
Another added trouble: The DA (David Oyelow) will level at least 10 different charges against his company, all of which Abel adamantly claim are false. His actions seem to support his innocence, but viewers may wonder if something illicit lurks in the shadows (or in that bushy Pacino-tribute hair). Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) possesses immense visual story-telling capacities that tease this tension throughout the film. The business dealings, while mostly all legitimate, take place in dimly lit rooms and trailers or white table-clothed restaurants, mob movie signifiers. When the bank revokes a loan offer, causing Abel to scramble for outside financing for a commercial property he is hell-bent on buying, the question becomes one of when those black gloves he always sports will serve purpose other than warmth. As it turns out, he displays as much posturing as Chandor's filmmaking does.
*CONT WITH SPOILERS ALL OF WHICH YOU'D EXPECT
A Most Violent Year channels the films of Sidney Lumet, but without the narrative finesse or the moral weight. There are clunky exchanges where too much is said and characters lose subtlety such as when Abel’s lawyer (Albert Brooks, elaborately toupeed) pries at Abel’s motivations for the property purchase. He prods ("why, why, why?!") until superficial answers (strategic waterfront location, sound investment, etc.) turn into intangible ones, landing at an empty “I don’t know” meant to verbalize his spiraling greed. Even a superb actor like Oscar Isaac cannot make this lame line stick.
When an after-dark intruder prowls Abel’s new home, a concrete box of respite in a suburban wood, and leaves behind a gun found by his daughters, Abel still maintains taking the moral high ground, against violence, arguing there always is a right way, to the annoyance of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). She is a sassy Brooklyn girl with a gangster-affiliated father as made known in many of Screenwriting 101 style characterizations, through which her past is meant to contrast against and taint Abel's more honest immigrant-rooted one. Anna does not have total control over Abel, but she does hold a street-wise sway. Neither the adulterous nag of the 80s/ 90s era gangster's wife, nor a tormented Scorsesian one, Anna is a woman as determined, if not more so, than her husband. She tells him what has to be done and does the things he is unwilling to do. After hitting a deer, while Abel readies himself with a crowbar, she lodges an excessive four bullets before he can strike in the heavy handed scene. Anna's cold savvy is made likable by Jessica Chastain, against type, in another winning, but she turns out to be the criminal, which makes Abel the purely the moll, and a dimwitted sulking one. By inverting a stereotype, Chandor does not elevate or improve the role of the fairer sex. Anna stands as little more than a schemer; the potential spur of the downfall of Abel's modest empire and single-handedly the catalyst for the DA investigation that is half of Abel's problems.
The film suffers a weak subplot with Julian (Elyes Gabel) the Colombian truck driver whose life is another obvious parallel to that of Abel. It is not a far stretch to believe that Julian and Abel grew up together, probably with the same hopes and dreams, but in the end only one succeeded, a fact that Abel realizes and sympathizes but can do little else about. His scenes are poorly played up until the convenient Chekovian-gun finale. I also have a hard time believing that Anna, tough as nails, would react in the way that she did. When the DA catches wind of the new property, to serve as a massive oil storage facility, the future of Abel and Anna wraps up with a pretty bow. The great performances by the two leads combined with the gritty environment and camerawork make the hiccups in the script mostly worth overlooking, but if it is Lumet that Chandor's wants to be, he has a ways to go.