The 1970’s were a great time for the crime drama. Issues, ideas, violence, and sex were used and explored in abundance during this era. The French Connection, Serpico, Death Wish; the movies that showed the inner city and the look it had on its people were incredibly popular. They showed characters who weren’t willing to sit down and let their lives be decided by the economy around them. A Most Violent Year, while being the antithesis to that idea, is an immediate callback to those days. The days where pacing wasn’t entirely important, as long as the characters and morality were brought into play. While the movie amazes with the indelibility of its cast and crew on modern cinema, the audience is left to wonder why they’d care about these people at all.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales; a hard working, stubborn, and unsubtly named character that refuses to fight fire with fire. After brokering a deal on a fuel terminal to gain equal rights with his competitors, Morales finds himself dealing with his oil shipments being stolen and trying to find out who did it and what to do about it. Jessica Chastain gets the thankless task of playing his wife, Anna. While Chastain is solid in the role, her character isn’t given much to do, but act like a spoiled brat that gets things done. As the audience, we’re never given another shot of seeing who her character is and what importance she has, aside from threatening to tell her brother about the shipments of oil that are being knicked by an awkwardly accented Christopher Abbott of Girls fame. David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks are also great in their roles of District Attorney lurking about the Morales’ with federal charges, and Morales’ shady right hand man.
While the movie may sound thrilling in an action sense, it really isn’t. A Most Violent Year is about the lives of these people. What goes on around them, what happens to them, whom is affected; all questions are asked and answered. Whether they’re meant to be pondered on, it seemed like it, but with too simplistic a story for an audience to really care. Yet director J.C. Chandor allows the movie to breathe with mood and moral(es) abound. Bradford Young’s understated, yet beautiful cinematography gives wonderful atmosphere to the turbulent New York City. Train stations and aged buildings are mixed with a yellow hue to serve as the once again, unsubtle look at the city during it’s most violent year on record, 1981.
A Most Violent Year aims to be a timeless American classic on par with the movies previously mentioned. And it has all the right ingredients; amazing cast, Academy Award nominated writer and director, timely look at how people have a right to take the world into their own hands. The film is still incredibly effective but Chandor is too busy trying to be understated. The recipe is there, it just needs a little tweaking.