It's somewhat disappointing that, after a strong debut with the smart Margin Call and the stake-raising experiment that was All Is Lost, writer-director J. C. Chandor stumbles on this equally ambitious but less accomplished third feature. A hushed quasi-thriller set in the violent New York City of 1981, A Most Violent Year aims at being a chamber take on a Mob thriller without the Mob, DP Bradford Young's smoothly gliding slow pans and colour schemes reminding occasionally of Gordon Willis' work in The Godfather.
There is, to be sure, some sort of mythic resonance in the film's tale of Latin immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who took over his mobster father-in-law's heating oil company and insists on climbing the ladder through honest, hard-toiling labour in a cut-throat business where dishonesty and foul play are constant. Abel is trying to honour the American Dream, trying to prove that if you put in enough truth and work it will come true, while being constantly reminded how much of a "pipe dream" that is.
And yet, after a stellar credits sequence, A Most Violent Year pretty much disintegrates into a muted, listless abstraction of a thriller, whose period trappings suggest much ado about nothing. Mr. Chandor is essentially rewriting the tale of the early days of an empire but seems to have left it too loose and diffuse, never making the actual stakes at play visible or understandable for the viewer, its meditation on the American Dream hung perilously on a threadbare scaffolding.
The result is an oddly bloodless if impeccably presented tale, one that reminds of classics from directors such as Sidney Lumet or the early, New York Martin Scorsese - the location feel is outstanding, and Mr. Isaac's strong performance is redolent of both a young Al Pacino and a young Robert de Niro. But for all that, there's a sense that, unlike in the much more accomplished All Is Lost, Mr. Chandor is more in control of his atmospherics than of his storytelling, all the more disappointing when Margin Call was such solid scriptwriting.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
USA, United Arab Emirates 2014
Cast Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks
Director and screenwriter J. C. Chandor; cinematographer Bradford Young (colour, widescreen); composer Alex Ebert; designer John P. Goldsmith; costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone; editor Ron Patame; effects supervisor Mark Russell; producers Neal Dodson, Anne Gerb and Mr. Chandor; production companies Participant Media, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Filmnation Entertainment, Before The Door Pictures, Washington Square Films and Old Bull Pictures
Screened January 26th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor advance screener)