A long time ago in an awards season that now seems far, far away, this was shaping up to be the year of A Most Violent Year. In December, writer-director J.C. Chandor's third feature was named the best film of 2014 by the National Board of Review. Critics' groups consistently nominated Jessica Chastain for best supporting actress. Reviewers raved that Oscar Isaac had given the finest performance of the previous 12 months.
Then nothing. The film didn't fade to the back of the pack; it dematerialized. By the time Oscar nominations were announced, it was as if A Most Violent Year had never been made. Why did the picture lose its place in the race? It's well written, beautifully shot and ably acted by a great cast that includes Albert Brooks and Selma's David Oyelowo. It's replete with nuanced scenes that reward multiple viewings. Unfortunately, it's also a picture whose sum is way inferior to its parts.
Chandor's previous films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, made intriguing statements about their characters and the worlds in which they were caught. His latest, by contrast, contemplates the dark side of the American dream without finding a syllable of consequence to say. At least the ghost of The Godfather flits through it. One could make a drinking game out of spotting the references to that classic in this film (and, in the process, make watching it far more fun).
Isaac plays Abel Morales, the quietly powerful head of a Long Island heating-oil company experiencing growing pains in 1981 — statistically, the Big Apple's most crime-ridden year. He's the anti-Michael Corleone. As important as getting to the top is to Abel, getting there without breaking the rules or resorting to bloodshed is what matters most. "I have always taken the path that is most right," he intones.
OK, toss back two already: The Corleones also sold oil — olive oil — and the camel-hair coat Abel wears throughout is a dead ringer for the one Al Pacino wore throughout The Godfather: Part II. Oh, and there's the opening scene — at a tollbooth — in which goons attack one of Abel's drivers and steal his truck. Drink up!
The story concerns Abel's attempts to figure out which rival family business is responsible for the hits his company has been taking, much as Vito tried to figure out which family head was behind Sonny's assassination. Only, while the Corleones marshaled their troops, Abel insists on a peaceful approach. "They're at war with you," he's advised. "I'm not with them" is his reply. Which brings us to the part of Chandor's picture that doesn't work at all.
Chastain's Anna is the daughter of a big-time gangster, from whom her husband inherited the business. Increasingly perceiving Abel's refusal to go to the mattresses as a sign of weakness, she does everything in her power to shame him into taking old-school action. As a result, the two sometimes seem to be in different movies. Eventually, Anna goes so "Mob Wives" on the guy that the very concept of their relationship (and with it, of the film) loses credibility. These two never would've hooked up in a million most violent years.
The movie looks great. Here and there it's gripping. But, between the often-arch dialogue, the paint-by-numbers subplot concerning political corruption and the fact that the point of the story's a no-show, viewers may conclude in a New York minute that, for the first time in his career, Chandor failed to take the path that was most right. Hence an offering that awards groups have decided they can refuse.