Writer-director J.C. Chandor scored an Oscar nomination with his first movie and one I enjoyed, “Margin Call,” and won critical praise if not box office love for his second, the Robert Redford sailing film “All Is Lost,” which I couldn’t stand. I found myself somewhere in between the two with today’s Cinema Society screening, “A Most Violent Year,” which will be released at the end of December.
I wanted to love it. It’s set in a gritty New York City during the crime-ridden winter of ’81 and harkens back to Sidney Lumet-type thrillers of the 1970s – the sort of movie Al Pacino would have made his own or, later, a tightly coiled Richard Gere. It’s an interesting story about an immigrant played by “Llewelyn Davis'” Oscar Isaac who’s climbed his way up the chain of the heating oil business. Now he runs his own company, has a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain) and two young kids, drives a Mercedes and wears fabulous suits and a camel coat. But all is not going well. Just as he’s about to acquire valuable land to solidify his empire, the cops are closing in with an investigation into his company, his drivers are being attacked on their routes to delivering the oil and his wife, the daughter of a gangster, is threatening to bring in her family members to make all the problems go away. But Isaac’s character wants to “do the right thing” and he persists in resisting the violence around him.
Everybody at the screening loved the movie and I seemed to be the lone dissenter. There were many things to love about it, the chase scenes among them, and the acting was superb. But I kept waiting for Isaac to show some emotion and he rarely did. At the Q&A, Chandor said that the character’s quiet, steely demeanor was the whole point and that he deliberately avoided putting him in explosive shouting matches. The result for me was an unbelievability – i.e. nobody stays calm in the face of what this guy has to deal. The payoff at the end just wasn’t enough for me either; I wanted to see more of a character arc. And the pace of the movie was slow and deliberate – it really takes its time getting started after a terrific opening scene.
I have a feeling “A Most Violent Year” will get terrific reviews and I’ll feel like an idiot for not joining in the chorus, but it is what it is. I’ll take “Birdman” over this one any day.