A Most Violent Year is rarely violent, takes place over the course of a month, and mostly consists of a guy trying to get a loan. J.C. Chandor’s new film may pretend at being a statement on The American Dream™, but it’s a painfully repetitive slog mired in phony aspirations of being a crime drama that comments on how hard it is to get ahead in this country without playing a little dirty. Aside from the fact that we already know this, A Most Violent Year wastes its talented lead actors and distinctive setting as it tries to get us to invest in a story about a man who spends most of his time looking for investors.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a shipping company in New York City in 1981, and purchases an old port that could turn his business into an empire. However, he only has thirty days to make the full payment, and if he doesn’t, he loses his down payment, which will essentially ruin him. He must also deal with his trucks being constantly hijacked as well as an investigation into his finances, which could implicate him having ties to organized crime even though he’s trying to run a clean operation. As Abel tries to patiently and professionally endure attacks from the District Attorney’s office, criminals, and competitors, he is constantly goaded by his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who believes that her husband needs to get tough if he’s going to protect his family and secure their future.
Protecting their future consists largely of taking meetings. A prowler can leave a gun on his doorstep, a driver can get mugged, and the radio can always have news of a crime (which was rampant in NYC at the time), but the plot of A Most Violent Year is like listening to someone tell you their upper-middle class business problems. Abel is making a gamble, and if he’s successful, he’ll go from rich to super-rich. He isn’t some scrappy businessman, and his only compelling quality is that he could play dirty if he wanted to, but he’s determined to make an honest living going forward even if what he’s built thus far has been somewhat shady.
In the broadest sense possible, A Most Violent Year can knock the capitalist values of “Everyone’s trying to get ahead,” and “In business, there’s no clean way to get to the top.” These are not astounding insights even though they may feel particularly relevant to the growing income inequality in our country. It would be one thing if this were a starting point for Chandor to reach more complex and thoughtful ideas, but he doesn’t know how to build on the basic themes because Abel does the same thing for most of the film: Ask for money and sporadically get bossed around by his wife (between this film and Interstellar, Chastain has been horribly wasted in weak supporting roles this year).
Looking at A Most Violent Year and Margin Call, Chandor appears to have an odd fascination with wealthy people who are on the verge of losing everything due to poor financial calculations. The viewer can extrapolate this conflict to larger American economic issues, but they could do this independent of Chandor, who has very little to add to the discussion even though his characters have plenty of bland conversations. It’s a shame because visually, Chandor is an exciting filmmaker. His previous film, All Is Lost, is a triumph of visual storytelling, and A Most Violent Year has a strikingly drained palette as if the rampant crime has sucked the city and its citizens dry.
But from a storytelling perspective, Chandor is asking his audience to do most of the work and then taking credit for subtext that—if it even exists—is buried so deep as to be rendered meaningless. If Isaac weren’t such an innately magnetic presence with his wearied, tired look as he goes hat in hand to every possible investor, the movie would be even more tedious, and I shudder to think at that possibility. A Most Violent Year can replay the same set of scenes time and again, but that doesn’t make the movie more insightful or revelatory. It just forces us to sit through the same dull meeting as a sad guy looks for help in his quest to devour a piece of America’s wealth rather than hunger for the crumbs like almost everyone else.