Nutshell: I’d give A Most Violent Year an F. Painful to sit through, horrendously dull. Choppy performances from top-notch actors gives the feeling that director J.C. Chandor didn’t have a good bead on his vision. What could have been a vibrant, intelligent look at a rough time in NYC’s history is instead a snoozefest of bickering and tedium.
Okay I’ll admit it; I’m one of those folks that doesn’t heart NYC. Oh, I enjoy visiting. Love Broadway. And some of the best mochi I’ve ever had is right around the corner from 30 Rock. But I’d never live there. I just don’t feel the click. Not a judgement call, but a bit of 411 before I dig into this film. I’m not in love with the city, so if you’re going to tell me a tale, make me care. Don’t be lazy and just assume I’ll give a shit simply because it’s New Yawk Cit-tay!
Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) takes the lazy way out, assuming folks not only care, but know exactly what went on in the NYC oil trade. In the 70s and 80s. Yup, I’m coming up with zilch too. Let’s peek at the Wikipedia synopsis:
Set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history, the film centers on the life of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.
I know, right? Sounds awesome! But where’s all the violence? Why are we only seeing oil trucks stolen, and people in the oil business getting beat up? Well kids, that’s because this is a bait-and-switch; say the film is about the uber-violent 80s in NYC…and then focus on one family and how it’s Paterfamilia is trying to make it big in the NYC oil delivery biz. Yep. Teamsters, mob guys and cop investigations are all cool, except for in this movie where they’re not.
Perhaps some back-story could have smoothed things over at the start. Sadly, Chandor drops viewers into the mix with no warning, and no information. There’s only so much groovy-accurate costuming and set design I’ll bow down to before I start to begin wondering what the hell’s going on with the story. The answer? Hell if I know. It’s like a slow-burn Law & Order episode that got tossed because it wasn’t interesting enough to make an episode out of. And yet here it is, a full-length film padded and prodded to become a 21st Century mob film. (Think a boring Scarface: Oil Baron Division.) Except rather than 21st Century cinematography, A History of Violence looks like an 80s Movie of the Week.
The actors seem to sense that this is high art with little heart. Chastain, whose acting I usually adore, seems like she’s phoning it in here, as if she can’t seem to bond with her upper-middle-but-comes-from-lower-class housewife from Jersey. She’s better than this performance. Oscar Isaac –who was fantastic in Inside Llewyn Davis — mopes, pouts and growls about how his business can’t get up off the ground. I got excited when I saw Scorpion’s Elyes Gabel as a truck driver that has a very bad day (great series, and he’s excellent in it.) But all the recognizing actors I enjoy didn’t help me enjoy this film. Yes, I often enjoy dark stories; cue Whiplash, A Clockwork Orange…hell, I’m one of the three people that actually liked The Village. However, when a film doesn’t allow you to connect with the characters you’re supposed to care about? I got nothin’. And that, kids, is why having someone direct and write the screenplay can often make a movie go boink.
I know that there’s a ton of awards buzz for this film. I’m content to be the lone hater. Why? It’s simple: I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps if the film had been marketed as less of a violence-fest and more of an introspective look at one man’s attempt to make it in a rough business? Meh, probably not; If I had a dime for every time I jotted down “why do I care about this?” in my notepad during the screening? I’d have enough for a couple of happy hour pints. I’ll leave you with a blurb I jotted — hot off my notepad — that wraps this film up nicely:
“Like a bad horror movie, I don’t care who did it. Just fast-forward to the climax and wrap this up already.”