Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s profile has continued to rise in recent years through ambitious and diverse output. His critically acclaimed, Oscar-baiting All Is Lost (2013) demonstrated his ability to coax a poignant yet complex performance out of Robert Redford with little-to-no dialogue. Whilst 2011’s Margin Call proved he could tackle contemporary issues in a dramatically reflexive way. You can always accredit Chandor for his honourable cinematic intent, yet it can sometimes feel as though his concepts surpass his execution. Not to say he lacks the skill to realize his concept(s), rather there’s a continual strain to find that magic that could make his films that bit more.
A Most Violent Year frustratingly continues this trend. With confident and poised performances, irresistibly captivating cinematography (courtesy of Selma‘s Bradford Young) and a decidedly innovative take on the well-trodden American Crime film, something still remains amiss. Set during New York City’s most violent year since records began, our story follows Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) who are fighting to build their industrial empire amid rising theft, violence and corruption. Their staunch pursuit of success forces them to consider less ethical solutions. This overbearing, singular theme drives the Morales’ plight. As with Margin Call and All Is Lost, Chandor challenges his audience by asking ‘what choices would you make? how far would you go?’. However, such noble contemplation never guarantees a great film; especially when curated so heavy-handedly.
Both Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain maintain their course as two of the year’s most majestic stars with convincing, enigmatic performances. Yet Isaac, whilst powerful and complex, struggles to avoid handing in his best Godfather Pt.II Al Pacino impersonation. Meanwhile Chastain’s tour de volatility, though captivating and viperous, hints at a circa-Casino Sharon Stone. This criticism may be cynical, but these comparisons are somewhat justified; especially in certain climactic scenes they share in their newly inhabited mansion. However, Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo provide welcome support respectively as the brooding, restrained advisor and newly appointed DA.
Intriguingly, Chandor has made the first anti-Gangster film by simultaneously immersing himself in this iconic world whilst proclaiming there are other, more principled, routes one can choose in the face of criminality in order to achieve the American Dream. This should be respected and most likely will separate it from other defunct genre-fodder. However, due in part to the simplistic narrative and an unnecessary melodramatic idealism, you can’t help but feel it fails to hit its intended mark. By all means, A Most Violent Year is a film to be watched and admired by a large audience. Just perhaps not held in such high regard as its creators believe it should.