The 80s were an interesting time. If you ask people what they most remember about the decadent decade, they will probably mention Reagan, inflation, the dawn of MTV, or defining moments in American culture like the Challenger explosion, Reagan’s assassination attempt, or the Iran Contra scandal. The 80s were also a violent time, even before the crack epidemic created a new class of criminal. The early 80s were especially dangerous in major cities like New York, with 1981 being one of the most violent years on record, at the time. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) explores this tumultuous period in his atmospheric film A Most Violent Year, starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Lewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar).
Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the bootstrapping, self-made owner of a profitable heating and oil company. He’s looking to expand his business, attempting to broker a real estate deal with some powerful Jewish members of the community that will grant him direct access to the city’s ports. Things get complicated when his oil truck drivers begin getting carjacked and Abel loses one truck after the other. The thieves’ brazen lawlessness leaves Abel’s drivers vulnerable and threatens his real estate venture. Rather than arm his drivers with guns to defend themselves, Abel tries to quietly investigate – much to the chagrin of his fiery wife Anna (Chastain). Chandor hints throughout the movie that Abel is involved in some shady business dealings, and this seed is planted further when a district attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Selma) threatens indictment for a slew of offenses ranging from fraud to bribery. The course of the film follows Abel as he tries to find the culprit behind the robberies and stave off indictment while preserving his real estate negotiations.
A Most Violent Year seemed promising based on its trailer and cast, namely Oyelowo and Chastain. Featuring the soulful sounds of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues,” the trailer hinted at a gritty, atmospheric tale, and that same earthy melody played over the opening credits. What song better captures the harsh realities of an unforgiving metropolis? However, despite its moody cinematography and intriguing premise, there were parts of the film that just didn’t excite me. The film smoldered throughout, but it never ignited in the way I thought it would. For example, Abel seemed to bury his head in the sand in the wake of the truck robberies. How is it believable that someone so seemingly passive in one facet of his life could be so shrewd and ambitious in other aspects? I understand wanting to leave a certain lifestyle behind, but how did you ascend to current heights if you never stood up for yourself? In a way, the film never lived up to its provocative title.
Another thing I disliked about the film was the disjointed nature of certain scenes within the context of the larger plot. When Abel finally finds out who is behind the truck heists the revelation is very unsatisfying and just doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. It simply doesn’t fit with the picture Chandor painted earlier in the movie. For some reason (and maybe this is my fault), I thought the movie would be in the vein of Carlito’s Way, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting. I’m not saying a movie has to resort to cheap thrills to hold my attention – but I was rather underwhelmed. However, the aforementioned criticism must be balanced by the positive aspects, which should not be understated. First, the cinematography was excellent. The movie looked like 1981 in every way; it looked like it came out of a vault. The sepia undertones were haunting and almost beautiful. The tone of the film was perfect, and it was superbly acted. For those reasons, I can’t say it was a bad film. It just wasn’t what I expected. Grade: B