So I haven't written a movie review in a while, let's correct that. I saw A Most Violent Year tonight and you shouldn't. I'm not sure why this movie is getting so much praise. It's written and directed by J.C. Chandor who's previous films Margin Call and All Is Lost I mostly liked.
First the basics. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales the head of a heating oil company in New York in 1981. He built the business himself and it's doing well and he's trying to expand by investing all his savings in a new storage facility. Straining his finances isn't his only problem. For the last six months many of his trucks have been hijacked and the oil stolen. He doesn't know who is doing it but suspects one of his competitors in this shady industry. The police have been no help and in fact the DA, David Oyelowo, is investigating him and the whole industry. But here's the hook, Abel is, in spite of all this adversity, trying to do the right thing. He's really trying to be honest in his dealings while being aggressive in his business. This is a marked difference from his competitors and his wife, Jessica Chastain. She's the daughter of a mob guy and keeps threatening to get her family involved if Abel doesn't step up. She also handles the company's books.
So that's a fine setup and the movie isn't horrible but it doesn't go anywhere. First, I didn't believe for a moment that Abel is successful. The film just states that he is, but he doesn't make any decision that a boss would need to make. If your trucks are being hijacked and your drivers attacked again and again, you have to do something to protect them. You can't just send them out and say they're stronger for going out again and the attackers are just cowards. Fine he doesn't want to arm them illegally, but how about giving them something to protect themselves with. Or hire security (or just more people) to sit in the trucks too. He also has no knowledge about the books of his business. A few times we see him in negotiations with others and he's horrible at it. It reminded me of the old Robin Williams joke about British police; "Stop! or I'll say stop again!" There are a couple of moments where he shows some skill, offering something for what he wants, but they don't add up to anything.
I also read a bunch of reviews raving about the cinematography. Ok, so it's set in 1981, they have the cars and outfits looking right. Otherwise it's mostly slightly dark with lots of brown tones. Meh. It's set in New York City and while you see some run down areas and some industrial yards and the occasional skyline, there's barely any people in it. The roads either have no one on them or are packed so that no one is moving. The conversations are all in rooms with just a couple of people. The offices of this up-and-coming company only ever have one other person in it, the one Abel has to talk to. It could be anywhere, so all those comparisons I've seen to Sidney Lumet are just ludicrous.
I don't know why this was set in 1981. Apparently that was the year in NY with the worst crime statistics, but it could have been now with no problem. Ok, perhaps it's useful to have no cellphones, but he has a radio that the company uses and there's at least one obvious time where I was practically screaming to have him use it to call the police.
A few things do happen but it doesn't add up to much. None of the characters have an arc or change in any but the slightest ways. Abel's constant refrain about doing the right thing I guess make's it a morality tale. Sure trying to be good is sometimes difficult, but a story should offer more to it than just repeating that. And I don't respect a character that's about always doing the right thing while simultaneously ignoring some problems and not wanting to hear about others. Well that could be interesting, but the film should point out the flaws in that folly. I think Stephanie Zacharek nails it, "It's not really that violent. But it sure feels like a year."