“A Most Violent Year,” J.C. Chandor’s final film in his Rich Folks Trilogy, is a markedly enjoyable ride until it starts to beat its message into the viewer like a Brooklyn hoodlum getting pistol-whipped on the cement.
Chandor has had a lot of success telling tales of the affluent and their troubles, beginning with his remarkable debut, the economic collapse tale “Margin Call,” and continuing with Robert Redford’s voyage of solitude in “All is Lost.” This time out, we’re treated to Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of an upstart heating oil outfit in 1981 New York that’s fending off mobbish competitors, government investigators and the specter of corruption that still looms from the gangster ways of the previous owner (who happens to be Abel’s father-in-law).
In his tan suede coat and perfectly Flowbee-ed hair, Abel is the picture of a Empire State wiseguy — only he’s trying with all of his heart to be a legitimate businessman in the vein of Michael Corleone rather than an unbridled crook a la Tony Soprano. At times, Isaac conveys a remarkable naïveté for Abel — he seems to be the only person who doesn’t understand that he’s the lead in a mobster movie.
Abel seemingly hasn’t been privy to as many those movies as we have, so we can excuse him a bit when he doesn’t see the writing on the wall when his erstwhile consigliere Walsh (Albert Brooks) advises him to make peace with his truck drivers when they start getting beat up along their routes. We also can appreciate the Lady Macbeth qualities of his born-into-the-life wife Anna (played by Jessica Chastain, made up like a caricature of Michelle Pfeiffer in “Scarface,” albeit with even more gratuitous neck-line plunges) — she offers up textbook reactions to each and every threat their business and family faces, right along with dramatic one-liners like, “We are at war,” or perfectly choreographed twirls of her massively manicured fingers to signal the disrespect she won’t let stand.
It’s nothing if not refreshing to see the story of the would-be gangster treated in this way: A man fighting at every turn to avoid becoming corrupted, yet facing an avalanche of Bronx-style Murphy’s Law. The less-cynical viewer will have a tremendous protagonist to root for in Abel — while everyone else watching will know that our hero is offering less comfort than a raw steak on a bruise when he tells his battered workers that their assailants are “cowards.”
Whatever side of that crucial fence you fall on, “A Most Violent Year” is nevertheless a beautiful piece of cinema, lensed with rich, “Godfather”-mimicking photography by Bradford Young. It also packs a few solidly executed scenes of tension — including two tied to an uninvited guest outside Abel’s home — to help spice up the core story, which boils down to Abel taking out loans to buy a riverside property.
But even if you can appreciate the absurdity or innocence of Abel’s Boy Scout aspirations, sooner or later the level to which he flounders in a rising sea of vices goes beyond comical and into the realm of tedium. Even Michael Corleone made sure he had a gun waiting for him inside the bathroom of the Italian restaurant — Abel marches into the same kind of room armed only with Pollyanna exhortations about having pride in doing clean business.
In much the same way that Chandor’s “All is Lost” left viewers divided on the ultimate fate of its seafaring protagonist, “A Most Violent Year” serves as a litmus test for the audience as to whether they view the well-meaning Abel as a tortured vessel of a man beating against the criminal tide, or simply a bumbling schmuck in a proto-gangster film who could end up getting himself killed by not playing by the rules of the game.
“A Most Violent Year” is rated R for language and violence. Running time: Two hours and five minutes. Three and a half stars out of five.