Monday, February 9, 2015

A most underwhelming movie

Moviegoers expecting A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, to be a New York gritty action-packed crime drama - as I did - are in for a major disappointment. This movie, the story line of which would seem perfect for a gangster thriller along the lines of movies from The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) to Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990), to Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980), just doesn’t have that dramatic edge. In fact it doesn’t have much edge at all. Heck, this could be a theatrical play there’s so little action and what action does take place on the gritty Brooklyn streets is largely irrelevant to the narrative. Rather, what we see is a set of business negotiations in which ambitious Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) tries to build his local home heating company. (The title’s reference is to 1981, when the movie is set, a period of extreme crime in NYC.) The industry is rife with corruption and competitors want to put him out of business. That’s where the violence comes in. His trucks are hijacked and fuel stolen. His drivers get roughed-up. There are personal threats to Morales and his family. The movie is mainly concerned with Morales overcoming these almost crippling challenges. How can he get his adversaries to stop their intimidation without resorting to violence himself as his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges, going to the extent of getting her own gun. At the same time we don’t know if Morales is himself shady - an issue never resolved - because a police investigation into the industry brings several charges against him. This all might sound exciting but it really isn’t. The movie is basically all - literally - talk, with quiet scenes of Morales and his wife or associates or potential enemies having face to face and actually placid encounters despite the backdrop of tension. Two people in the audience of the screening I attended fell asleep (I heard one snoring, the other started shouting as he roused from sleep.) There are some action moments, such as a shoot out on the 59th Street Bridge or near the film’s end when Morales, in his car, goes after the hijackers of a truck. But The French Connection this isn’t. There is decent enough acting on Isaac and Chastain’s parts. But this is basically a cerebral film and isn’t at all what a moviegoer might think is in store from the title.

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