Director: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac
I can now tick off another Oscar Isaac film as I journey my way through his recent collection, with ‘A Most Violent Year’. Since the film’s release, this has been high on my to-watch-list, and I was very excited to finally crack open the DVD case and get it watched last week. The title, for me, promised so much, mainly violence, and whilst Isaac’s performance was adequate, sadly I was again disappointed with his decision to star in what I deemed to be a rather bland production.
The main problem is, violence really plays a very small part in the narrative of this film. Set in New York in 1981, said to be one of the most violent periods in the city’s recent history, you can see how a lack of violence would be frustrating to watch. We meet Abel Morales (Isaac), a relatively successful businessman looking to expand his oil company. Unfortunately for Abel, his rivals and the assistant DA (David Oyelowo) are breathing down his neck, and his drivers fear for their lives after a spate of attacks and robberies. Abel’s refusal to turn to violence to protect his drivers and family leave a multi-million dollar deal, and in turn his business, in jeopardy, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) feeling disillusioned with her husband’s righteous attitude.
Oscar Isaac plays a pretty uninteresting character just about as well as anyone possibly could. I was longing for Abel Morales to switch, and take a more viscous, aggressive approach to business, and whilst his moral compass is something to admire, it certainly didn’t provide entertainment. He did provide a sharp, clever edge to the character, and a certain degree of charisma, but overall Abel Morales is a role Isaac should have turned down. Jessica Chastain is excellent however as Anna Morales. It is she who looks most likely to turn violent and fuck shit up. Indeed, she is the only one in the marriage that we actually see pulling a trigger. Chastain gives her character a great fiery attitude, and a sense of independence, whilst remaining loyal and devoted to her somewhat lacklustre husband. In support, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks are used rather sparingly, and whilst Brooks is quite effective in his moments, I was baffled as to what purpose Oyelowo’s character actually served.
There were many issues with the characterisations in ‘A Most Violent Year’, and that is surely down to the writing. Isaac and Oyelowo are fantastic actors, we know that, we’ve seen the proof. So for Oyelowo to come across as irrelevant and Oscar Isaac to be rather dull, there must be an error in the scripts somewhere. The story too, was very flat and uneventful; is a desperate oil flogger with high ambitions and very little conviction really enough to build a two hour film on? I checked the time remaining on this a couple of times – once at 45 minutes in, and I was hopeful that I was approaching a peak, some big event to kick things off. The second time at 1 hour and 45 minutes, and I was shocked and very disappointed. By this point, STILL very little had actually happened – still not a very violent year! Once the film was over, I almost felt as though there must have been some poorly made editing decisions or something, which cut this film to pieces and lost some crucial action along the way.
Truth be told, I dont even know where that action would have come in to it all. There doesn’t actually seem to be any continuity issues; it’s more likely that the plot behind this film is literally THAT lifeless and uninspiring. So many times, Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales found himself in a situation where, in any other film, a violent reaction would have been necessary (and enjoyable to watch), but every time he was on the verge of losing it, something stopped him. The writers? The director? The underlying message that violence isn’t the answer? Whatever it was, this inaction and pacifist attitude is the root of all the issues with this film.
On the whole, ‘A Most Violent Year’ is just about good enough that I didn’t regret watching it, and would just about pass as a film of which I would say “give it a chance”. The story had just enough going for it to keep you clinging on, hovering above the stop button but never pulling the trigger; much like Abel, I didn’t have the guts to follow through. Maybe I missed some of the beauty of such a virtuous message, and maybe I’m desensitised by the array of hard-hitting crime films in the world today, but if you’re expecting any kind of excitement or grit from ‘A Most Violent Year’, then you too have been suckered in by a misleading title.