With a title like that, I expected a lot of graphic bloodshed and sizzling sex. Not so. In fact, there was more violence and gunfire in Iron Man. This new film has more emotional tension than physical violence. I tell you that so you won't expect blood and guts and blow-ups and bare bodies if you see it.
The tone of A Most Violent Year reminded me Sidney Lumet films made in the 1970s and '80s in New York. Films that dealt with values, corruption and forces that one tries to control but the forces wind up controlling you. Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and the under-appreciated cop drama Prince of the City (1981) are examples. Lumet made films that were heavy on dialogue. I think director/writer J.C. Chandor was heavily influenced by the kind of good, gritty films we got in the 1970s and '80s.
If you're up for a lot of action, this movie is not for you. It's almost like a special 2-hour episode of The Sopranos written by National Public Radio writers. What hooked me was the acting. It gives juice to a movie in which there really isn't much happening. I'm sure some critics will snark that Oscar Isaac does an Al Pacino imitation in this film. When you see his demeanor and his close-ups, it's hard not to think that, if The Godfather was made today, he'd be Michael Corleone. His look resembles Pacino's a bit. But he's not Pacino. He's got his own talents. He does make you wonder why Abel is so obsessed with oil. Doesn't he realize what the obsession is doing to co-workers he cares about and to his reputation? Just like today, the rich are getting richer -- and the poor seem to get the possibility of jail time. Jessica Chastain plays Abel's tough wife, Anna.
I'll tell you what I told her. This is my take on A Most Violent Year.
I lived in New York City for 20 years. I lived below 23rd Street and had a daily view of the World Trade Center. I was there on September 11th. A couple of weeks after our national tragedy, New Yorkers in my neighborhood gathered for a downtown candlelight march for peace. In the crowd, I heard people say over and over "This attack was all about oil." Over and over again, as we marched, I heard "...all about oil."
Does Abel Morales really know how reliable or reputable the sources of his oil are? Will he be controlled by corrupt forces he thinks he can control? Will blood be spilled because of his oil obsession? Is he willing to put people at risk to pursue the American Dream?
In a way, A Most Violent Year felt like a look at the kind of actions that made some folks richer, but tragically may have made us victims on September 11th. There's blood and oil in A Most Violent Year. And some good acting. But not a lot of action considering its title.