One thing is certain: JC Chandor really likes The Godfather movies. I mean, who doesn’t, but A Most Violent Year is dripping in the feel of The Godfathers, and could even take place in the margins of The Godfather Part III - it’s set just a few years after that film. But maybe Chandor felt that the Godfather films were a little too full of intrigue and bloodshed, and so he made his version more sedate and more interested in the mechanics of getting a loan.
At the center of A Most Violent Year is Oscar Isaac, totally channeling the threatening stillness of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. I could even see Michael wearing Isaac’s wardrobe. Isaac is incredible as Abel Morales, the owner of a home heating oil company who wants to run his business like a business, not like an arm of the Mafia, as his many competitors do. Of course Abel is kind of fooling himself, as he only owns the business thanks to his wife’s father, a man Abel describes as a corner store hoodlum. And even his right hand man, his consigliere, prefers to whack those who cause trouble than to turn them over to the police.
It’s the essential Corleone desire - to run this crooked business straight. But where Francis Ford Coppola found a rich vein of pulp to mine for his classic works of art, Chandor is way more stuffy. There’s not much blood in the veins of A Most Violent Year - and even less on screen. This is one deeply mistitled movie.
A Most Violent Year is undoubtedly handsomely made, and the acting is often superb. Jessica Chastain is Abel’s wife, and she leans more towards the intent of violence than her husband does. Chastain is good in the role despite a dizzingly inconsistent accent (if you’re going to go New Yawk, go New Yawk. Don’t turn it on and off from scene to scene). Albert Brooks supports as a most un-Albert Brooks character who laments the lack of violence in Abel’s business dealings. David Oyewole is perfectly solid if not particularly inspired as the fed looking into crime in the home heating oil biz.
This actors do good work in a movie whose solemn tone stands in for any sort of narrative drive. The plot is this: Abel is closing a major deal on a new oil storage facility just as the feds are preparing to bring multiple indictments down on him while unknown hijackers have been targeting his trucks. He’s tied all of his money up in the new land, and when the bank gets cold feet dealing with him in these sensitive weeks he’s forced to find new financing, but he does not want to get tied up with the mob.
It’s a powder keg of a set-up… but it’s a powder keg that never explodes. Chandor’s script lays out all of these pieces and then pays them off in the most boring ways possible. The film is almost defiant in the way it wants to undercut your expectations that a movie like this should be interesting. There are too many plot pieces in play to make this a true character study, and the movie withholds enough vital information that even the movie’s thematic examination of Abel as a man skating through life is muffled.
There’s one storyline in the film that keeps threatening to get good - Elyes Gabel is Julian, a young trucker who has been violently hijacked and suffers some PTSD as a result. He wants to be Abel, who started as a driver, but life - or an innate flaw - is keeping him from getting to the next level, and when he takes extreme measures to protect himself he finds his life crumbling around him. The contrast between these two men could have been interesting, but the movie doesn’t spend enough time on it, and the story ends in an anticlimax that had me laughing.
A Most Violent Year is deeply frustrating. The actors - and cinematographer Bradford Young - are doing good work in service of a story that goes nowhere, a story whose wet flop of a non-ending muddles its themes. There are times when the film seems to be gearing up to get interesting - a scene where Abel hits a deer with his car and stands over its writhing, injured body, unable to deal a deathblow with a tire iron when his wife comes up and calmly shoots it hints at a wonderful reversal of the Michael and Kay Corleone relationship - but it never bothers getting there. Like Abel himself, the movie hums along looking good but never truly accomplishing anything.