Writer/director J.C. Chandor became something of an overnight sensation back in 2011 with his sharp economic drama “Margin Call,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. After this notable debut however, he made the disappointing “All is Lost,” a film that featured the great Robert Redford trying to survive on a boat for nearly two hours, a premise that becomes just as tedious as it sounds. Had Chandor’s breakout been something of a fluke? Was he a one-trick pony with nothing left up his sleeve? Critics and audiences were certainly hoping not, which led to much anticipation for his third feature, “A Most Violent Year,” a film that once more has Chandor exploring new areas in his efforts to bring another startling work to the screen.
Taking place in New York City in 1981, the film concerns Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the owner of a fuel company whose trucks have been getting robbed as of late. This couldn’t be happening at a worse time for Abel because he is right in the middle of a business deal to purchase a facility to expand his business operations. However, the transaction is only partly done, requiring another large payment before it’s complete, with no allowance for an extension. To make matters worse, Abel’s company is under investigation for several charges including fraud, charges that he adamantly denies. Meanwhile, he must deal with the pressure of what to do about his vulnerable drivers. Does he arm them with guns (accompanied by very iffy permits) or does he allow things to go on the way they are? Along with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), he must navigate what he feels to be the right path in order to solve all matters in the best way possible.
J.C. Chandor’s latest opus is most certainly an improvement over his previous effort, but in terms of getting back to where he was in the beginning, he has yet to recreate that level of success. “A Most Violent Year” has an intriguing premise, one that could be utilized to maximum effect in the hands of a gifted writer, but unfortunately Chandor doesn’t take as much advantage of it as he could, leaving us with a film that plods on for about half of its two-hour runtime before finally feeling as though he realizes the potential. However, even then, there is only a smattering of scenes that feel inspired, most of which come in the third act, leaving an awful lot of space before we get there. It’s certainly not a bad film. As it goes on, the audience gets somewhat engaged at the prospect of how Abel’s life could get any more complicated than it already has, but strangely enough we end up sympathizing more with his wife, who is waiting for him to fix the problem, a task that is delegated to the audience as well.
What drives the film as far as it does are the outstanding performances from Oscar Isaac, who blew away audiences last year with his performance in the music drama “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Help”). Isaac does a fantastic job of portraying a man who only wants to succeed, but by a moral and respectable path, while Chastain is tantalizing as his wife, who is not held up by such an honorable code. Indeed, their scenes together provide some of the film’s best moments, particularly when their two styles begin to clash. We can only imagine what might have been had they had a stronger screenplay to work with, but even using what they have, they manage to leave a lasting impression.
Perhaps the biggest issue with “A Most Violent Year” is that the film feels as though it never truly comes to life. We have a set-up, and then we have more set-up, followed by even more, which merely leaves one to question when the film is actually going to begin, and only causing us disappointment by the fact that it takes about half the runtime for it to actually do so. There are certainly good things to be found within it, but when you’re left asking yourself “is that it?” at the end, you can’t help but feel a little let down to discover that there wasn’t more to it. 2.5/4 stars.