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Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015 12:01 am

Violent: Much ado about little

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year.


Like the only guy at a party who doesn’t get the joke, I’m wondering what it is about J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year that I’m missing. Riding a wave of good reviews (the film is trending 90 percent positive on the Rotten Tomatoes website), as well A24 Studio’s aggressive ad campaign which failed to garner it any Oscar nominations, I’m left scratching my head wondering what all the fuss is about. At best, it’s a competently made movie featuring sound performances that cover familiar territory at a ponderous pace. However, from where I’m sitting, it’s hardly a film worth falling all over yourself about.  

The setting is New York City in 1981, a year that saw a dramatic spike in violence in the Big Apple, making it an appropriate backdrop for a tale of avarice and corruption. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is doing everything he can to resist the temptation of compromising himself in the pursuit of profits. The owner of a burgeoning heating oil company, the eager businessman has put a down payment on a piece of property that will allow his company to expand rapidly and get a leg up on his competition. However, his financing inexplicably falls through, leaving Morales with 30 days to come up with the money to pay off the rest of the debt. Compounding matters is the fact that his drivers start to get hijacked, shipments of oil are stolen and his family threatened.

Morales is well aware that the way to get things done in this arena is to grease the right palms and know somebody who knows somebody in high places, yet he refuses to go that route, attempting to maintain his moral code and not wanting the specter of corruption hanging over his company. However, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) has no such qualms. The daughter of a mobster, she’s prepared to take the steps her husband won’t, as it doesn’t take long for her to realize one of her husband’s competitors is behind all the misfortune befalling them. Even the threat of an investigation by New York District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) for suspicious business practices does little to dissuade her.

All of this plays out at a glacial pace as Chandor tells the story in a languid manner, purposely withholding key bits of information for dramatic effect while introducing numerous conflicts without taking steps towards resolving them. You keep waiting for some sort of narrative spark to goose Violent forward, and it never happens. Events play out – Morales faces a crisis of conscience, Anna does something he does not approve of – yet there simply isn’t a sense of urgency to any of this. Chandor seems befuddled as to how to build any tension from one scene to the next, letting key dramatic moments wither away before reaching their potential.

If it were up to Chastain, she’d willingly carry the entire movie on her back. Sexy, dangerous and smoldering, she brings a palpable edge to her character, and in doing so, creates the only sense of tension in the film. You know Anna will take matters into her own hands at some point, it’s just a matter of when or where. Curiously, Chandor mishandles this as well and the character’s big moment comes off as just another lackluster moment. Isaac brings little to a thankless role. While Morales should be seen in a heroic light for striving to maintain his morality amidst a sea of temptation, the actor fails to bring an iota of charisma to the role, leaving us to wonder why Anna would give this rather dull man the time of day and why we should be interested in his fate. As for me, I couldn’t help wondering what else I could be doing instead of waiting for Chandor to find a sense of urgency with which to tell his tale.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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