Tuesday, April 7, 2015

BLU REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, his follow up to the phenomenally minimalist Robert Redford lost-at-sea drama All Is Lost, suffers from a serious identity crisis. The film has no idea if it wants to be a gangster picture, a labor-related drama, a story of redemption, or a family thriller. It tries to balance all of these plates in the air, and the result is an aimless, lifeless story, suffocated by its lack of focus.

The cast is stellar, and Chandor certainly knows how to patiently stage scenes and effectively frame his story. But there is almost nothing to latch on to here. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the hero of the story, a businessman who is constantly fighting an uphill battle. His trade: a heating oil business with a fleet of delivery trucks, trucks that are consistently under the threat of being hijacked. Despite the pleas of his father in law and his more aggressive wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), to arm the truck drivers, Abel wants nothing to do with anything illegal. He has morals which drive his business acumen and may keep him from truly getting in with the right crowds in a poisonous, corrupt New York governmental system.

Abel has another motivation to stay on the straight and narrow, and that is District Attorney Lawrence (Selma's David Oyelowo). Lawrence is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the business industry of NYC, and despite Abel's claims that his nose is clean, Lawrence is absolutely convinced he is operating dirty somewhere. Not because he has been involved in criminal activity before, but because he must be in order to stay alive as a business in this climate. The forces are weighing heavy on Abel's shoulders, and he remains strong despite the fact that illegality may be the easier way to success.

And yet, with so much set in place, with the stakes as high as they are, and with so many compelling actors on the screen, A Most Violent Year moves at a glacial pace. There is no forward momentum, and the tension is stifled by scenes where very little happens. I'm not asking for shootouts and car chases, but the performances from the likes of Isaac and Chastain feel nothing like what these actors are capable of doing. They both seem tired, disinterested. Even though Chastain has some powerful moments, they feel forced, and Isaac seems to be distracted throughout. Chandor's camera is slick and there are some beautiful scenes, but the story is claustrophobic.

Also, the entire basis of the film involves New York in 1981, which is known for being the most violent year on record for the city. Hence the name of the film. But there is hardly a mention of that outside of this narrow tale. The violent history of the year is never a focus of the film, despite it being the title. That was a lost opportunity, as was the majority of the film.