A Most Violent Year

★★
The first half of the film proves that J.C. Candor can tell a very interesting story. The second half proves that he doesn’t always half to.
Movie Review #971

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The title of “A Most Violent Year” refers to the year 1981, as experienced in New York City. Played by Oscar Isaac is an immigrant who owns an up-and-coming heating oil company called Standard Oil. He’s plagued by the constant highjacking of his trucks, and on top of that, the D.A. (David Oyelowo) is trying to expose his company for tax evasion. I guess we’re supposed to feel bad for this guy’s situation, because he’s getting the boot from criminals as well as someone who works against criminals. He’s supposedly a good guy, but he inexplicably reminds us of Al Pacino in “Scarface”. He’s certainly a toned-down version of that child-in-king’s-clothing character. It’s funny, though, that his name is Abel Morales. What a surname.

Speaking of “Scarface”, Jessica Chastain reminds one of Michelle Pfeiffer in that film from the very first sight of her. And speaking of “Scarface”, Alex Ebert’s synthesizer score reminds us heavily of something Giorgio Moroder might have composed during the 1980’s. And speaking of “Scarface”, there’s so much else here that seems to indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that J. C. Chandor isn’t his own director, but rather a man who is simply too fascinated with the work of Brian De Palma to bring back the crime genre of the ’80s and ’90s. And it’s not just “Scarface”. The film’s climax haplessly imitates the unforgettable twist near the end of “Goodfellas”. Not only is it nowhere near the utterly paralyzing shock that that ending delivered, it only has the shock value of an electric chair tailored for a mouse. The point is that “A Most Violent Year” is overall a very unoriginal film.

For a while, this is a decent movie. With the awesome performances of Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo, it won’t cease to intrigue. But after an hour, “A Most Violent Year” becomes a really slow burner. The title fits the mob movie feel, but it’s a bit misleading. Save for one moment at the end, the violence here is sporadic and PG-13. It’s that restraint that Chandor practices in his direction, and his establishment of hard-hitting dialogue throughout the film, that makes this an exceptional neo-mob movie. But the dialogue is what, for a while, makes “A Most Violent Year” so damn brilliant. It’s ruined soon after the halfway mark by action sequences. I like Chandor’s dialogue. It’s something he’s good at. When Chandor segways from a smartly intriguing period drama into a line of action sequences in the film’s second half, it begins to fall apart into a hot, boring mess.

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