A long time ago in an awards season that now seems far far away, this was shaping up to be the year of A Most Violent Year. In December writer-director J.C. Chandor’s third feature was named the Best Film of 2014 by the National Board of Review. Jessica Chastain was nominated consistently by critics groups for Best Supporting Actress. Reviewers raved that Oscar Isaac had given the finest performance of the previous twelve months.
Then nothing. The film didn’t fade to the back of the pack; it dematerialized. By the time Oscar nominations were announced, it was as if the movie had never been made.
Why did the picture lose its place in the race? It’s well written, beautifully shot, ably acted by a great cast that includes Albert Brooks and Selma’s David Oyelowo. It’s replete with nuanced scenes that reward multiple viewings. It’s unfortunately also a picture whose sum is way less great than its parts.
Chador’s previous films, Margin Call and All is Lost, made intriguing statements about their characters and the worlds in which they were caught. His latest, on the other hand, contemplates the dark side of the American dream without finding a syllable of consequence to say. At least the ghost of The Godfather flits through it. One could make a drinking game based on spotting the references (and, in the process, make watching the film far more fun).
Isaac, for example, plays Abel Morales, the quietly powerful head of a Long Island heating oil company experiencing growing pains in 1981-statistically the Big Apple’s most crime-ridden year. He’s the anti-Michael Corleone. As important as getting to the top is to him, getting there without breaking the rules or resorting to bloodshed is what matters most. “I have always taken the path that is most right,“ he intones. Okay, toss back two already: The Corleones also sold oil-olive oil-and the camel hair coat Abel wears throughout is a dead ringer for the one Pacino wore through Godfather 2. Oh, and there’s the opening scene-AT A TOLLBOOTH-in which goons attack one of his drivers and steal his truck. Drink up!
The story concerns Abel’s attempts to figure out which rival family business is responsible for the hits taken by his company much as Vito tried to figure out which family head was behind Sonny’s assassination. Only, while the Corleones marshaled their troops, Abel insists on a peaceful approach. “They’re at war with you,“ he’s advised. “I’m not with them,” is his reply. Which brings us to the part of Chandor’s picture which really doesn’t work at all.
Chastain’s Anna is the daughter of a big time gangster (?). Her husband inherited the business from him. Increasingly, she perceives Abel’s refusal to go to the mattresses as a sign of weakness and does everything in her power to shame him into taking old school action. At times the two seem to be in different movies. Eventually, she goes so Mob Wives on the guy the very concept of their relationship (and with it, the film) loses credibility. These two never would’ve hooked up in a million most violent years.
The movie looks great. Here and there it’s gripping but, between the often arch dialogue, the paint by numbers subplot concerning political corruption and the fact that the point of the story’s a no show, viewers are likely to conclude in a New York minute that, for the first time in his career, Chandor failed to take the path that was most right. Hence an offering awards groups have decided they can refuse.