A Most Violent Year (Review)

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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

THE SETUP

From academy award Nominee, J.C Chandor, who gave us “Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”, comes “A Most Violent Year”, a crime/drama period piece, set in New York City in 1981. The film stars Oscar Issac (“Drive” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Jessica Chastain (“The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). Abel Morales (Issac), was once an immigrant, who now finds himself in a powerful position, the head of a prospering New York oil company. The only two things on Abel’s mind, are buying up property and maintaining a constant cash flow, to support his wife, and business partner Anna along with their two kids. It’s 1981,  a very dangerous time in New York City, as Abel balances the running of his trucks, and keeping the men that drive them safe. Not to mention, dealing with the D.A’s investigation of illegal activity within his business, and all this in a day’s work. The film also stars David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola and Elyes Gabel.

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THE GOOD

J.C’s last film, focused on the survival instincts of one man. That man was played by Robert Redford, and It worked so well because of the decision to cast him. In this one, J.C went with Oscar Issac, who has turned in some really nice performances over the last few years. Including one that saw him working alongside Albert Brooks again, and that was in “Drive”. Jessica Chastain has quickly risen to stardom with some captivating performances. Now, making her one of the best in her age group in Hollywood. These two turn in really solid performances once again. I think the chemistry between Abel and Anna was important to the story but it’s only briefly touched on. The audience could have benefited from seeing the path these two have taken, and how they ended up together. After all, Abel is an immigrant and Anna is U.S born, there’s a good story to tell there, which could have made for a great sub-plot.

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Abel’s rise to the top doesn’t prevent him looking out for the little man (or so he would have you think). One of those men happens to be the luckless Julian (Gabel), a young Italian man who drives one of Abel’s oil trucks. He ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets caught up in the violence which Abel wants no part of and chooses to deal with him accordingly. I think another interesting sub-plot could have been explored within Julian’s character arc, but unfortunately we don’t get much insight into him. Abel does spend a brief period of time with the new sales representatives. Where he talks about mannerisms and the intricacies of closing a deal. The audience needs to see some of the drive in him that clearly landed him in a successful position, so that was good. The idea of telling a story during New York’s most violent year is an intriguing one, or at least it could have been. If the screenplay wasn’t so lifeless and the characters were far more interesting, or projected a lot more personality this could have been rich.

THE BAD

Before I discuss the finer points of the film, I have to say it’s rare that a film lacks focus like this, especially one backers spent $20 million on. The audio is surprisingly uneven in several scenes. Sound effects seem to punch through significantly louder than most of the dialogue. It’s an issue I normally find in low-budget films, not what I expect from a “Hollywood” made film. Some of the shot choices, where the camera follows a characters direction looked very ordinary. The backgrounds in many of the scenes shot in Abel’s house, are clearly out of focus. Entire backdrops of the beautiful Forrest surrounding their house, are totally blurry and I’m not sure why. The score was about as bland as they come. Majority of the 4 note, piece of music that’s on repeat, sounded like it was straight out of “The Godfather”. Don’t even get me started on Abel’s look, can anyone say Al Pacino!

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When it comes to lighting and personal style, never have I seen such poor decisions made by a team. Ninety percent of the shots in this film are so dark, you can’t see anything in the scene. The other ten percent are made up of naturally lit scenes that blind the viewer, and pierce the actors faces. This is one of the worst lit films I have ever seen, given how much money went into it. The strangest thing is, I don’t know if it was done for some kind of artistic merit or not. If it was, it didn’t come off and if it wasn’t, J.C needs a new lighting crew. Everything from the transport units Abel has his business meetings in, to the D.A’s office, down to every scene in his house. It’s the most dark color palette ever created and all of it looks terrible. Let’s discuss the story for a minute. It’s clear from the beginning, Abel is quite a morally questionable character, with the D.A investigating him and all. Enter Lawrence (Oyelowo), an agent who has it in for Abel before he even starts inquiring about anything. It appears as though this will be a significant matter regarding Abel’s business and finances, but it never goes anywhere. There is a scene at a party depicting Lawrence as the insensitive type (typical haha), and a small wrap around scene at the end of the movie but nothing in between. Abel’s company is called “Standard Heating Oil”, or something like that. At one point Abel claims the oil in each of his trucks is worth $6,000, and that’s why they are being targeted by criminals. Not once did I see anyone have a discussion about what they would actually do if they got the truck. No one is ever shown selling the oil from it in order to get money or whatever, nothing remotely to do with that. The guys in the beginning just take it and who knows where they go?.

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I’ve never had such a hard time working out the characters and their relationships to each other, or how they fit in the context of the story like I did with this. Julian becomes one of the main characters, but the whole time I was thinking how does this guy fit??. In the beginning he ends up in the emergency room. So both Abel and Anna go to see him. It’s at that point I’m thinking, maybe he’s a nephew or something and they’ve offered to pay his bills etc. Later in the film, Abel visits a women. She was either Julian’s sister, or maybe his wife??, I couldn’t really tell. Then add Andrew Walsh (Brooks) to the mix, as I’m guessing some kind of business partner/father figure, and an assorted mix of other secondary characters and it all becomes difficult to follow. At its core, this was supposed to be a film about New York City in 1981, but it never feels like the character it should in the story. The heart of New York is absent. No scenes were filmed throughout the city, nor are any of the iconic tourist destinations shown. If it wasn’t for them mentioning New York City in the beginning this could have been anywhere in the US. The accents don’t feel authentic and the violence doesn’t feel present, it’s a long and slow mess from start to finish.

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A Most Violent Year could be the most misleading title there’s been for a long time. It’s a painstakingly dull film that contains basically no violence or suspense. It’s not an authentic New York setting, the character development is stagnant at best and the dialogue rarely gets above a whisper. The technical aspects are incredibly mediocre and the run time is drawn out. If not for the stellar cast and a few nice scenes this wouldn’t give a yelp. I love a great crime/drama and somewhere in here there was a story attempting to be told. A Most Violent Year is a two-hour business meeting, with people you don’t know, and trust me you don’t want to know.

My rating for “A Most Violent Year” is 3.5/10

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