I have seen a lot of gangster movies, and certainly the best kind are the ones where the main character gives in to the dangerous path. Whether is loyalty to family seen in immortal The Godfather trilogy, the struggle for survival and self-satisfaction on AMC’s excellent Breaking Bad or simply the fun of it, as we’re shown in equally immortal Goodfellas, it’s a fascinating metamorphosis. Then, we have something relatively new: the “almost gangster”, which J.C. Chandor introduce us in A Most Violent Year.
Scripted by Chandor himself, the plot focuses on oil dealer Abel Morales (Oscar Isaacs), who maintens his own business with wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) in 1981’s New York. Looking foward to expand his business to grander levels, he negotiates the purchase of a jewish propriety while being attacked by crimminals and competitors, looking to break him financially.
First of all, applauses to Chandor’s entire team for the absolutely stunning visual construction. The production design recreates with beauty the beggining of the 80’s, while Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes concentrate on the elegance, rather than the bizarre Linda Hamilton fashion) and the need to shelter from the city’s heavy winter. Rising cinematographer Bradford Young (also responsible for the look of Selma) reveals himself a true professional, adopting an oranged color palett that’s heavily inspired by Gordon Wilis’ style in the Godfather Trilogy, also impressing with his game of lights. On technical terms, it’s a marvel.
My problem with the film is that the story simply doesn’t do it, lacking thrills and originality. Isaac’s Abel Morales is a man who struggles to keep on “the right path”, and it’s exactly te opposite that makes the genre so delicious. Chandor manages to create an interesting between Abel and his wife, working mainly due to the powerhouse performances from Isaac and Chastain, and entertaining dichotomies of Abel’s resistance to the “dark side”, resulting in two memorable sequences where the character fights to contain his violent instincts. For a movie with a title like this, A Most Violent Year is surprisingly optimistic.
It takes a long while to the spectator to be envolved, even with great characters. Even the decision to set the picture in 1981 (statistics say it was New York’s most violent year, roll credits) seems like a wasted call, since the narrative is isolated in its own world, being kind of irrelevant which year the story unfolds – but I do admit it’s interesting to see radio programs constantly reporting crimes, creating an almost phatasmagoric-like presence in Abel’s life, as if it trying to seduce him.
A Most Violent Year is a brilliant technical and visual accomplishment, bringing good metaphors and masterclass performances. Sadly, those factors aren’t enough to support the low-paced, boring plot created by J.C. Chandor. Sometimes, the dark side is better.