Director: J.C. Chandor
Runtime: 135 minutes
Though perhaps not a great film, the 28th AFI Fest has gotten off to an appropriately glamorous start. The AFI is a training ground for up and coming voices in film, so it only makes sense to kick off the festival with A Most Violent Year, the third film from rising writer/director J.C. Chandor. Jumping genres once again, this time to the world of classic New York gangster drama, Chandor has created a solid story out of familiar parts that is best when it focuses on leading man Oscar Isaac.
Set in 1981, one of the deadliest years in New York City's history, the film derives its central tension from its characters resisting violence, rather than engaging with it. Abel Morales (Isaac) is determined to expand his family oil business, even as unknown forces keep getting in the way. Though Morales' business, which he bought into, has a good reputation and threatens to eat away at the competition, a string of attacks threaten to wreck everything he's worked for. But Abel refuses to heed the advice of his fellow businessmen or the teamsters and arm his drivers and salesman. Even when an attack comes right to the Morales' doorstep and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) finds their youngest child playing with a loaded gun, Abel remains committed. Whatever illegal or ethically dubious details might be in his company's books, Abel refuses to go down a road that will turn him into an outright gangster.
Like some minor Sidney Lumet drama that the master never got to make, A Most Violent Year takes its time to build up its narrative momentum, allowing a few choice moments to really hit hard. Set up as a classic family-crime drama, Chandor fares far better when he just sticks to the business and crime angle than with the personal relationships. The more the film zeros in on Abel, the better the film works, whether in tense negotiations or a fantastic car-turned-foot chase. A Most Violent Year is easily Chandor's best work in terms of establishing a fully-realized world and infusing said world with a gripping atmosphere.
Yet it's Isaac who props the film up through its two hour duration. Doing a complete 180 from his breakout performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac brings a quiet confidence to Abel, even as the character endures various hardships and pressure from multiple angles. If Chandor is loosely channeling Lumet in A Most Violent Year, then Isaac's work calls to mind a young Al Pacino in his iconic collaborations with the director.
Isaac is so central to A Most Violent Year's success that it's disappointing to step back and realize how underserved the rest of the ensemble is. The most underwhelming is Chastain, especially given her top billing. In the scattered glimpses the film affords into Anna's personality, one can see the beginning of a red hot, scene-stealing performance. Instead, Chandor sidelines the character for long stretches of time, leaving Chastain with little to do other than pepper on a Brooklyn accent, be a little sassy, and let solitary tears streak down her face. Smaller supporting roles don't get much better. David Oyelowo, playing a D.A. investigating the Morales' business, has the makings of a compellingly ambiguous antagonist, but winds up with even less to do than Chastain. Albert Brooks, as the family's lawyer, has a few decent lines (and at least has enough to do), but more often than not he appears to be sleepwalking through his role.
Compensating for the lackluster supporting characters, thankfully, are Chandor's work as a director on the big picture issues. However thin the characters, Chandor's work with his actors (Brooks aside) at least gives the impression that everyone is invested in their material, no matter how scant. And when it comes to Abel's story, the storytelling really clicks, tipping its hat to crime dramas of the 70s and early 80s without flailing around as a work of hollow mimicry (I'm looking at you, Blood Ties).
The film is also a technical marvel, largely thanks to its visuals. With each passing film, cinematographer Bradford Young proves he's the real deal. The versatility he's displayed in such a short period of time is astounding, and his green and yellow tinted visuals here are some of his strongest to date. The choice to keep the camera slowly pushing forward heightens the underlying tension of the various forces inching Abel towards his breaking point. If Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki are the current kings of the cinematography world, then Mr. Young deserves to be named as their heir apparent. Returning Chandor composer Alex Ebert does a nice, albeit unmemorable job with scoring duties, while editing is smoothly handled. Beyond Young's contributions, the costume department deserves the most credit, subtly capturing the styles of the early 80s with sharp suits for the men and a few dynamite outfits for Chastain to strut around in.
Despite the promise of the title, A Most Violent Year is not an all out orgy of violence. Chandor takes the more interesting route, exploring how outside violence ensnares its protagonist pushing him deeper and deeper into a corner until he has to make a critical choice. Everything else around that dilemma may feel extraneous, but the main story is enough to maintain investment in Chandor's story. A Most Violent Year misses out on greatness, but its strengths - namely Isaac and Young - are prominent enough that it's worth a look, even with the weaker elements that are trapped in orbit around the strong center.