Review by Pamela Zoslov
J.C. Chandor is a filmmaker who seems to have something to say, but who says it in a remarkably inarticulate way. The ultimate expression of this was ALL IS LOST, Chandor's nearly wordless film that featured Robert Redford adrift in his sinking yacht. Tedious though it was, that film at least spared us the leaden dialogue that characterized his debut, MARGIN CALL, a would-be GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS about the financial industry.
Chandor's new film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, finds him again in the business world, this time 1981 New York City (Chandor is the son of an investment banker). At the center of the drama is Abel Morales, the ambitious Mexican-born head of a successful heating-oil business. Although he has the demeanor, pompadour, and expensive tailoring of a Mob boss, his ethics are impeccable. (Even his name – “morals” – reflects his probity and Chandor's literalness.) “I run a fair and clean business. I have never taken anything from everybody,” Morales asserts, though he seems to have purchased the business from the father of his Mob-connected wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose long, manicured talons look poised to draw blood. Anna keeps the books for the business, cooking them when necessary. She defends her husband as “an honorable man” but alternately calls him “a pussy” when he refuses to carry a gun.
Above the opening titles is Marvin Gaye's “Inner City Blues,” inspiring hope for a portrait of gritty early-'80s New York. Not so: the urban milieu is scarcely evoked, except for some clunky dialogue about how violent things are in the city. There are period-correct cars, but the costumes and décor don't particularly evoke the era (or any era). Chandor doesn't seem interested in establishing context; his films are like little terrariums.
Violence erupts when one of Morales' delivery trucks is hijacked. His trusted driver Julio (Elyes Gabel), a fellow immigrant, endures a brutal pistol-whipping that lands him in the hospital. The menace escalates as Morales discovers an armed prowler lurking outside his mansion. The culprits could be any one of Morales' envious competitors, but the movie isn't a whodunit or even a “whydunit,” but a morality play about ruthless ambition and the American Dream.
Albert Brooks appears as Andrew Walsh, Morales' loyal attorney. Wearing patrician hair (straight and center-parted) that makes him resemble Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, the comedian-actor is quietly effective.
Morales is working to complete the purchase of a waterfront property for his new terminal and greatly expand his business. The deal is imperiled by the hijackings and a District Attorney's investigation of his company for financial improprieties. The bank, which has guaranteed his previous loans, threatens to pull out. Will he or won't he close the deal? That seems to be the source of the suspense, a reed too slender to support a thriller.
The thrills, unfortunately, reside mostly in Chandor's mind. Aside from the sad story of Morales' frightened driver, whom Morales encourages to get back behind the wheel, there's not much here, though everything is presented in an improbably majestic manner. Isaac, whose lead performance in the Coen brothers' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS impressed me less than it did other critics, is unremarkable in a role that calls for a charismatic Pacino type. So uninvolving is the story that I found myself focusing on the hair, trying to decide, for instance, if Isaacs' coif made him look more like Tony Curtis, Liberace or The Sopranos' Johnny Sack. 2 out of 4 stars.