Isaac, Chastain Misspent In "A Most Violent Year"

Low to mid-level business dealings can make for riveting cinema. See James Foley’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” or Jason Reitman’s “Up In The Air,” all three very different films but all using the mundane to startling effect. Then there’s J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” a similarly intimate tale of commerce that tries all too hard to be big and important. An intriguing first act soon slides off into misplaced grandiosity, where the stakes are never as high as the screenplay seems to think and a slate of amazing performers largely goes to waste.

It’s 1981 and heating oil company owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) is at a crossroads. The New York City oil industry is changing so fast that book-cooking is required to keep up, the acquisition of pricey terminals is vital to survival, and oil trucks are being hijacked at an alarming rate.

Morales’ wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar”) seems integral to the business, and thus the story at large, but her sparse screen time belies that notion. More disappointingly, Albert Brooks (“Broadcast News”) gets almost nothing to do as the Morales’ attorney, nor does David Oyelowo (“Selma”) as the D.A. trying to prosecute Abel and his wife.

The film’s title is in reference to the historic levels of crime New York experienced in 1981, but since the story is so insular its moments of violence never feel like part of a larger epidemic.

The piece works best as an audio-video experience, uniquely tying together its period piece trappings with a wonderful soundtrack – the movie opens on Abel running, panting to the elastic thump of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” – and Bradford Young’s cinematography often shines, featuring some of the most compelling shots of people running in recent memory.

But these elements don’t jibe with the story, one of small moments played far too large. From generic gangster dialogue to a climactic visual cue that assumes we need the pic’s blood-oil metaphor spelled out, it’s like being pounded over the head with a pool noodle. Not exactly painful, certainly not fulfilling.

After Oscar Isaac’s transcendent performance in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” perhaps his first big follow-up was destined to feel like a letdown. But it’s his writer-director who’s let him down, overestimating his own story in a big way. The end result is a drama clumsily packaged as a thriller.

There are moments that leap out of the screen, like Anna quietly emasculating her husband during a highway run-in with a deer, but they’re few and far between and highlight the void of interesting ideas that pads the rest of the running time. After a few false endings, “A Most Violent Year” finally smashes to black to an original song by composer Alex Ebert that’s more evocative than anything that preceded it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 31, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: J.C. Chandor
Screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violence)