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Review: A Most Violent Year

January 30, 2015

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

A Most Violent Year Poster

Named for the dangerously high crime rate in New York City in 1981, the title of A Most Violent Year is somewhat misleading, suggesting the sort of thriller that this story of shady business deals never really becomes.  To be sure, this is an interesting exercise in slow burning atmosphere, with a few affective bursts of both tension and violence.

But this is also a film that never really builds to anything overly significant.  I’m not saying this to slight director J.C. Chandor’s latest achievement, because the performances and technical elements of A Most Violent Year are commendable throughout.  I just wish the film itself left more of an actual impact, beyond just inspiring admiration from a distance.

The story centres around Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a hardworking immigrant struggling to keep his heating and oil business afloat, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who has no qualms with taking things into her own hands.  But allegations of fraud, and threats of violence against their employees, are complicating their investment in a piece of property that will help them expand their business.

Even if this crime drama doesn’t have the same lasting impact as his mesmerizing All is Lost, J.C. Chandor does a fine job behind the camera, delivering another technically proficient film with A Most Violent Year.  The cinematography by Bradford Young, whose work is also on display in Selma right now, includes some interesting camera angles and framing.  The production design and attention to period details are consistently impressive, including costumes by Giorgio Armani, and accurate recreations of the pre-9/11 skyline.

There are some interesting elements at play in A Most Violent Year, a film that many will interpret as a quiet dissection of the American Dream.  The characters are mostly written with intriguing shades of grey, working class people who are just trying to make a living, but have become trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of corruption.  Because of this, there is inherent dramatic heft to the story, and moments when the film does become gripping, with a few impressively staged hijackings and chases that do elevate the material and help raise the stakes.

But for something called A Most Violent Year, the film never left me reeling from the threat of violence that permeated New York at the time, often feeling too calculated to really allow the suspense of the characters to translate over into the audience.  It’s one thing to suggest the threat of violence, which this film does right from the attention grabbing title, but another to actually validate those fears.  This is a film that takes so much time building a sense of foreboding, that we become almost immune to the atmosphere, and I often felt too distanced from the characters to become truly invested in their plight.

Oscar Isaac does deliver excellent and carefully mannered work here, and Jessica Chastain is sizzlingly good as his wife.  These performances are worth seeing, and from the haunting cinematography to the atmospheric lighting, this is a well made film that deserves some level of admiration.  But in the end, A Most Violent Year doesn’t have enough of the urgent impact that the title suggests, offering more smoke than actual fire.

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