Over the past several years there have been a handful of highly talked about – but rarely financially successful – genre hybrids that attempt to marry the darkness of classical noir with modern political and sociological subtext. Some weren’t very successful. Andrew Dominik’s muddled and dictionary definition “pretentious” Killing Them Softly and Scott Cooper’s annoyingly obvious Out of the Furnace come immediately to mind when thinking of misfires. On the other hand, films like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (which also adds a healthy dose of action and sci-fi) and the criminally slept on A Walk Among the Tombstones from The Lookout director Scott Frank manage to deliver their messages simply by sticking to the genre tropes that work best. J.C. Chandor’s chilly looking A Most Violent Year falls into the more successful category up until the last ten minutes or so. Chandor knows he’s essentially making an old school mob drama, and once he picks the tone and genre, he never wavers from it. The film feels effortless where so many others to attempt this style feel forced and gauche.
It’s 1981 in New York City, and upstart heating oil company owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has been having a horrible winter. He’s furiously trying to close a deal that would give him a prime piece of property on the waterfront, but money keeps falling through. His drivers and salespeople have been victims of vicious attacks at the hands of thieves and people who would otherwise want to see Abel get out of the lucrative oil game before he takes away the profits of other rival companies. Even his family is under constant threat of violence at their newly purchased suburban home, something his wife (Jessica Chastain) with mob ties doesn’t take too kindly to. As if that wasn’t enough, a politically minded D.A. (David Oyelowo) has begun investigating Abel’s books for potential price gouging.
While many positioned Chandor’s latest as his best chance at an Oscar (following his equally talked about work on Margin Call and All is Lost), it was probably never going to gain much traction as an awards contender despite its stars. It’s flashy and focused rather than sprawling and elaborate. Even with the pairing of two big names that film critics love and skilled veterans in supporting roles, the old guard Academy was always bound see the film – somewhat rightfully – as the work of someone paying homage to Lumet, Friedkin, Scorsese, and Gavras. It’s not a new kind of film or even anything all that groundbreaking, but its approximation of a film that would have been made in 1981 is spot on. Chandor’s decision to play the characters and the setting rather than the subtext (again, until the final ten minutes which on a second viewing is rather groan inducing, but not terrible) allows for an unfussy bit of genre cinema to take hold.
Helped immeasurably by some stellar cinematography from Bradford Young (who also shot Selma last year, and is quickly becoming a highly sought after talent in his own right), Chandor captures New York’s most violent year on record as a bright, cold place. It can’t be called a noir when most of the film’s nastiest moments (save for a deer getting hit by a car) happen in almost blinding daylight. The fashion sense (camel coats, tailored suits, cleavage heavy dresses), classic cars, and grime are all period appropriate. It’s a city literally frozen in a moment and the tale of a man caught in a constant losing battle to get ahead.
At the centre of it all, Isaac gives another outstanding performance, playing Abel’s desire to be a moral and well meaning person against the contradicting notion that he has selected a profession that’s inherently dishonest. Abel always looks like he’s seconds away from losing his cool, but Isaac reigns in the intensity, doling it out only when absolutely necessary. He plays excellently against Chastain, whose character wants to see success and safety for her family at any cost. If there’s one major disappointment it’s that Chastain doesn’t really have much to do. Her strong willed wife is a nice touch, and despite her threats to force Abel’s hand to use her skill set to help protect the business against her husband’s perceived weakness, she still never does that much. They have great individual scenes together, but a bit more payoff would have been nice.
Then again, the film might have a few subplots too many. It’s not a complicated film, but any one tread could be spun off into its own story. It’s taking on too much and not doing enough with it as a whole, but overall it works as a great piece of entertainment. It moves quickly, picks a tone and sticks to it, and its acted, written, and directed with an assured hand. If viewed as just a good movie, A Most Violent Year succeeds. If viewed as a major Oscar sunb and awards season disappointment, that doesn’t hold up as much. I think Chandor knows what movie he has made, and he should be proud of it. I can see a lot of people liking it and coming back to it again and again. It has that kind of hold and does what a good genre piece should do.