It’s hard to forgive a stupid plot, but A Most Violent Year, the latest film by the newly acclaimed J.C. Chandor, makes for an almost convincing apology. We begin inside looking out, a point-of-view shot from a running Oscar Isaac, telling us this is a film from his eyes as much as it’s a film about ambition. He’s running—he’ll work for success—and he’s not afraid to sweat for it. Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant entrepreneur and heating oil salesman that has an honest face that paradoxically hints at a coiled ruthlessness. The year is 1981, in the midst the biggest crime wave in New York City’s recorded history, and his slimy competitors send gun-toting goons to rip off his oil trucks. With an unusually daft understanding of business, he refuses to retaliate or even to arm his helpless truck drivers. His business, his, he insists will stay clean. He has an inherent moral dynamic that is as brave as it is hypocritical. His cunning Lady Macbeth of a wife (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a known gangster, works with and against him. Their values are not the same.
Abel is honest but not too honest, smart but maybe not smart enough, and believes in the American Dream with a childlike vigor that’s naive but honorable. Abel cares about honor like the patriarchal figure he desperately wants to be. He’s an amalgam of Michael and Vito Corleone but is neither. Chandor has dressed his lead figure like Michael, only with a camel overcoat instead of black. He ensures you’re aware of the reference. Abel and his wife need 1.5 million dollars in 30 days, giving us a ticking clock to the narrative that’s meant to propel it. Isaac and Chastain give excellent turns, one quiet and one loud, and so does Interstellar and Selma’s David Oyelowo as an ambitious district attorney hot on Abel’s tail.
J.C. Chandor’s first two films are undoubtedly impressive, but without the dramatic relevancy inherent in the ’08 financial crisis in Margin Call or an inherently intense tale of solitude and survival at sea in All is Lost, A Most Violent Year puts the writer-director at bat for his first film in the major leagues. He has no wall to fall back on, and we see whatever skill he has clearly on display. A Most Violent Year walks with the same subversive swagger as Robert Altman’s revisionist genre movies from the 1970s, with The Long Goodbye remixing film noir and McCabe & Mrs. Miller reimagining the western (both are great). Genre tropes like the femme fatale have been observed and reassembled into a fresh pattern, but ultimately fail at delivering an inspired take on the material. If you’ve fashioned your lead like the main character in The Godfather, you’re really taking on the Yankees of cinema. Chandor gets on base, but only barely.
Chandor is clearly a fiercely intelligent man, and his scripts wield a density that’s a pleasure to watch come alive on screen. Imagine a poker game of elite players, some betting with a cold-faced bluff, most just call, and somebody might have a pair of aces. You know somebody is cheating. The poker game isn’t on a table, but stretched across New York City and Jersey, and it’s sometimes challenging to remember who relates to what. Chandor respects you’ll understand his narrative mass, which is noble except he keeps too many details on the periphery. Instead of engrossing the viewer in the game, we’re never given enough information to come to our own conclusions. We hardly know the players; the most we get is a scene or two shared by Abel and another business owner. The opening scene’s promise of letting us in Abel’s head is revealed to be half a lie. We’re never privy to his or his wife’s plans. In one scene Abel barks “I’ll take care of it” at his wife, but I was as mystified as her what that meant.
I suspect Chandor’s design was to deliberately fashion his movie into obscurity to resemble the headspace of our hardworking hero to build a commentary on Americana masculinity. Instead of being a shrewd man with precise moves and countermoves, a patriarch, Abel bullshits his way through life like the rest of us. Doing this was a mistake. Themes are nice—and it’s undeniable there’s a lot here to sink your teeth into—but the chosen balance between keeping us in the dark and letting us in on the joke is a bad one, and it gives the story all the tension of a jerking car. You keep wanting to go forward, but you’re slammed backwards instead. Screenwriters famously hate being told “do another draft” since they say it’s a misunderstanding of their craft. Maybe so, but another draft may have been helpful to further crystallize how this story could control its symbolic aspirations without sacrificing dramatic intensity.
It’s hard to be invested in a plot you ultimately know little about, with characters whose plans you don't understand. It’s all intriguing enough, but it’s a bizarre experience watching something that can be described as dense and thin at the same time.
I called the plot stupid, and I’ll own up to that allegation. For an hour of A Most Violent Year, I was passively involved, enjoying a story that hid its flaws beneath artistry and intelligence—the film has much of both. But around the 55 minute point, Chandor drops an atomic bomb of radiating shit into his movie. The plot takes a turn that’s nothing less than one of the most bafflingly, infuriatingly stupid things I have ever seen in a critically acclaimed movie. Ever. EVER. To divulge the details would go into spoiler territory, but know the plot rests on the shoulders of a group of blundering, mind-numbing idiots no person would trust to drive a go-kart. Nearly every character of A Most Violent Year temporarily suspends their intelligence and, while this duration lasts, takes on the combined IQ of a frog. It’s a blunder beneath Chandor and beneath the rest of his new movie. That is, until you realize the climax, which is a direct consequence of the moronic and maddening events halfway through the film, involves a deus ex machina that not only shouldn’t exist at all, but undermines, shrinks, and collapses the narrative into a black hole of absurdity. A few other critics have hinted at what I’m talking about without underlining the severity of Chandor’s error. I had to.
Chandor seems to have wanted to make a movie with the body of a gritty crime drama but with the heart of an art film. Ultimately, even ignoring the offensive logic gaps in the narrative, it fails to satisfy either creative impulse. A Most Violent Year’s title is a sequel to There Will Be Blood in false marketing. There is little that is exciting. We only have only two (admittedly elegant and gripping) chases, and not enough nuance in the characters or themes to secure its place as a credible art picture. There’s too much talent on both sides of the camera to make a bad movie, and really, there is plenty to like. But not enough.
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