By Gary Murray

Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor

Running time 125 min

MPAA Rating R

Selig Film Rating Cable


Every December, there is this jockeying of films that producers hope to be considered for those “Best of” ballots at the critic’s end of year lists.  It is a dance of attention between maker and watcher.

Getting on one of those lists may translate into Oscar nominations and other accolades.  Studios release many of these films in order to attract the attentions of those who can sway the opinions of others.  One of these films that were a part of the 2014 onslaught was the J.C. Chandor film A Most Violent Year

The story concerns the energy industry in 1981 and specifically home gas. Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a guy who owns his own home heating company and is making a play to control a bigger share of the market. 

He has this grand plan of taking over an old refinery with many storage tanks.   By buying heating oil in the summer and storing it for months, he can undercut his competitors.  This rubs his competitors very much the wrong way.   They retaliate by stealing his fuel trucks, using guns and beatings as a method of submission. 

We find that the home heating markets are shady business, full of characters straight out of the underworld.   In order to make his dream, Abel has to make some separate deals with different characters.  Abel must make the arrangement happen in a small window of time or he loses everything.  It is a race to find out who is robbing him along with the jockeying of finances that drive the basic plot of A Most Violent Year.

The film is also a romance between Abel and Anna (Jessica Chastain).  She is an insider to the industry and pushes her man to do everything he can to secure the market.  As the forces against Abel move in on his life, they must band together to fight the menace.

The problem with the film begins with the title.  A Most Violent Year suggests just that, a bunch of violence.  What we get is a whole lot of talking and back-stabbing.  There is one scene where a driver tries to protect his load by way of the gun.  Those moments are few and far between in the world of this film.  It has very little physical violence and much more intrigue.    

On the plus side, Jessica Chastain delivers one of the best performances of her young career.  Her Anna character is equal parts Lady Macbeth and Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn from American Hustle.  And therein is the problem with the role.  It feel derivative of other more successful parts by different actresses. She is a brilliant artist but this role is a bit lacking in originality, more the fault of the screenplay than the performer.

Oscar Isaac does a workman job in a role that is not as thought-out as it should have been.  At times, he comes across as the bad mobster muscling in on territory and at other times he comes across as a milquetoast businessman dodging his own shadows.  The role is a bit too over the place.   

J.C. Chandor is way too much in love with his words and not so much with his actions.  Time and time again, the audience becomes disenchanted with the story he is telling.  All of the elements are there, from crisp dialogue to laser sharp editing, but the final product is just a bit too boring.

A Most Violent Year is an almost-ran in the great Oscar race of 2014, a film that was close to making the grade but in the end fails on most levels. There is a great story to be told with this material but A Most Violent Year is just not that film.

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