You Say Film I Say Movie: “A MOST VIOLENT YEAR” Thinks You’re An Idiot

"A Most Violent Year" wallows in New Hollywood nostalgia for two hours then bluntly reiterates its message.
By    February 2, 2015

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Brad Beatson is the Art Director for Passion of the Weiss. He’s on Instagram.

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Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a man who believes in his principles and has achieved the American Dream by following the “most-right” path. His family just moved into a gaudy home that matches his conceit. (Yes, a character named Abel Morales is literally an empty son of morals.) And during the film’s 30-day snippets the times are a changin’, so the biggest deal of Abel’s professional life—purchasing a piece of property on the East River—is going to test those morals.

Abel gets far too many redeeming chances. For a movie with a lead who repeatedly reminds us that everything he’s accomplished was earned, it’s ironic that Writer/Director J.C. Chandor couldn’t see that his script didn’t deserve its implicit grace note. The lead performances aren’t enough to elevate the story Director of Photography Bradford Young and Chandor tell. That’s because Chandor takes a labored approach to explain capitalistic pitfalls and forgets to make an entertaining movie.

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*WOAH! Spoilers ahead. I will be talking about specific scenes in the film, so if that bothers you avoid this section altogether.

A Most Violent Year opens with a hijacking of one of Abel’s companies’ trucks. The hijackings continue, but the violence in this movie feels sprinkled on top. J.C. Chandor focuses on the internal violence afflicting the ‘Principled Man During Changing Times.’ Those intentions are made clear early: A Most Violent Year is more about “breaking bad” and the effects it has on Abel Morales the man and his business.

The film’s title refers to the start of the most violent decade New York City had ever seen. The late 1970s meant budgets cuts.  Heroin was commonplace. Hundreds of felonies were reported on the subway every week. Homicides were at an all time high. And in 1981, the year A Most Violent is set, “Son of Sam” was still on the mind of City residents.

Chandor’s focus is heightened by the DP, Bradford Young. At first I thought the centering of nearly every single shot, favoring near-to-perfect symmetry, was a nod to the style made popular by New Hollywood filmmakers, and in recent years, Wes Anderson. After seeing Selma, though, which Bradford Young also worked on as the cinematographer, it’s clear that this is his chosen style. It feels like he wants every shot printed out and hanging on your wall, which is both distracting and nauseating. It’s as if he thinks his lighting can induce melancholy.

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In both A Most Violent Year and Selma the actors are kept at arms-length from the camera. Instead of changing up the style to pull you in, Young frequently blurs the backgrounds of the frames to accentuate the importance of the scenes’ character—not the character in the scene. Both films feature anxious plots and yet every shot is contained and clean. There’s no room for unbridled chaos. They succeed in Selma, but, with the exception of Jessica Chastain, fail in A Most Violent Year. 

Chandor gives Chastain the best moments but offers her no redemption. After a few scenes we realize Chastain’s Anna is the one who makes things happen and Abel is full of it. Anna gets involved. She buys a gun. When the police show up at their home with a warrant during their daughter’s birthday party, Anna challenges the District Attorney, Lawrence (David Oyelowo), by putting her cigarette out at his feet and dishing a threat.

So what we’re left with is another boring tale of an antihero. In Nightcrawler and Listen Up, Philip you’re never given a chance to root for the despicable leads. A Most Violent Year begs you to root for Abel Morales. It hopes you appreciate the prop decorating, the vintage cars, the photo-editing of the skyline and the costumes that qualify it as a period piece. It wants to show you the consequences of greed. It doesn’t think you’ll pick up on the fact that Abel Morales is loathsome. Because it keeps insisting that his actions are OK because he’s acting in a just manner, he’s a product of the times. It believes that Anna doing something out of Abel’s control is what causes him to change and become unjust. And even then, he’s still honorable—he’ll pay his debts.

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  • When Oscar Isaac’s character just so happens to be in the same neighborhood as his stolen truck—operated by Charlie from Girls—drives by, it’s an eye rolling plot device. This allows Chandor to show off the subway system and accelerate the plot towards resolution. You can save your money by viewing the NYC Subway System ca. 1981 here: Photos by Christopher Morris
  • Albert Brooks’s character is indiscernible from the one he plays in Drive. Same cadence and demeanor. I’m convinced you could swap them and no one would notice.
  • More photos of the City in the 1980s: Richard Sandler