Even solid, interesting performances can’t save a film that just is boring. A most violent year seems to rely on the two central performances and their ability to raise the quite stunted and dull movie into something worthwhile and dramatic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work.
The two central performances are great however. Oscar Isaac is the legitimate businessman who is caught in a make or break deal while also trying to contend with gangsters destroying his business and sabotaging his livelihood. He has avoided becoming a gangster and is trying to do things honourably but the temptation is always there, even from his wife, herself a gangster’s daughter.
Isaac is great in the role. He channels a young Al Pacino, troubled, slowly boiling to a rage and erupting at key, pivotal moments. He is seemingly in control when his world crashes around him and to his credit, you want him to succeed and for his deals to work.
His counterpoint is Jessica Chastain, who plays his powerful and strong-willed wife. She wants success but is willing to go further than her honest husband ever will. Her strong-will is never realised better than in a moment involving a deer, dying in the road. She does what he can’t, more than a subtle hint at wider themes in the movie.
Chastain is great in the role too, matching the intensity of Isaac. She also has her own suspicious element and you are waiting for her to really strike out, seeing slight moments that demonstrate how nasty she could get if she was given the opportunity. One conversation about respect, involving Chastain and David Oyelowo’s district attorney, demonstrates her character’s true colours and tempts that next step for the movie.
We never get it though. Ironically, for a movie called “A Most Violent Year,” there is little of actual violence or action to speak of. This is a movie of shady deals, tense conversations between gangsters, couples, the law and the people they are trying to catch. These conversations are not actually that interesting though and you find yourself waiting for the moment when Isaac’s Abel will decide to tread the path he is avoiding, hoping for more Goodfellas or Godfather rather than the talky drama we get instead.
Not that I have anything against this kind of human portrait. There are some interesting moments but it could have been presented in a more accessible way. A faster pace to the scenes, more on what the actual ramifications to the characters actions will be and an ending worthy of the foreshadowing that has gone before. I know director/writer J.C. Chandor can deliver this kind of action-less movie because Margin Call, a film almost entirely dialogue dominated, is a great, tense and intense watch!
Not that there isn’t any action but even this is over too quickly. The action is chase sequences and brief shoot-outs. The second major chase has slightly more to it, following a long drive and run to it’s key conclusion. A sequence in a tunnel, with Isaac’s character chasing a van through dust clouded darkness, is the edge of your seat and as exciting as the movie gets. Unfortunately, it’s over all too quickly.
It strikes me that there is a good movie underneath it all somewhere. This is an interesting story, a business man tempted by the gangster actions that he has managed to avoid all his successful life has potential but it needs to deliver on what it promises, rather than rely on the great performances of the central cast.
Overall, a Most Violent Year is quite a most boring movie. It is dialogue heavy, with long scenes that seem to go nowhere interesting. There are moments of promise but these are over far too briefly with little impact. The saving grace are the performances of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain but these can’t save what is a dull story that had so much potential.
Rating – 2.5
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