REVIEW: A Most Violent Year | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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twoDirector: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

Run Time: 125 mins

Certificate: 15


Contrary to what it’s title suggests, A Most Violent Year is less about violence and action than it is about stern conversations over money loaning. I’ve never taken out a loan; at the tender age of 20 it’s not something I’m particularly versed in, but I do know it sounds boring. It’s why the great crime flicks of the ’80s and ’90s don’t dwell on the process of applying for money, but the explosive consequences of getting into business with the shadiest of characters. A Most Violent Year doesn’t seem to understand that audiences enjoy these money loaning plots not because they want to see characters engage in repetitive dialogue while explaining contract clauses, but because of the consequential breaky-leg, horse-head-in-your-bed shenanigans of running into problems paying this money back. A Most Violent Year is a gangster film at heart, but without any of the tropes that make a gangster film interesting or fun to watch. On paper this could be quite a subversive set-up, playing on audience expectations and delivering a genuinely unique set of characters realistically based around mob dealings. In execution, A Most Violent Year’s biggest downfall is that it plays out like a selection of all the worst bits of Goodfellas.

The most disappointing final thought that A Most Violent Year leaves is the prospect that there might have been a good, even great, movie hidden somewhere in there. A couple of script revisions, well-rounded characters and a tighter focus and the crime thriller could have been something special. Instead it feels like an exercise in mediocrity from a director who’s finding his footing. Occasionally you’ll be thrown a compelling, well structured scene that manages to have you on the edge of your seat and your heart pounding.

The problem is that every time A Most Violent Year ignites a false sense of optimism that it’s all going to come together through one of these charming scenes, it quickly sinks back into its safety blanket of a convoluted yet patronisingly simple plot. An awkward structure gives the impression that A Most Violent Year was a much longer film that had to be cut up and trimmed extensively. As a result, characters completely vanish for large chunks of the movie, while some plot points fall off the face of the film entirely, never to be given closure. It all culminates in the frustrating feeling that somewhere deep down inside A Most Violent Year lies an impressive film, but that it can’t quite escape the shackles that prevents it from reaching its full potential.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. A prolific performance from breakout star Oscar Isaac is understated and engrossing, elevating the material he’s given to work with. Channelling early Pacino (and even occasionally, late, crazy Pacino), Isaac’s performance is nuanced and intricate, proving once again that he’s one of the most interesting up-and-coming leading men in Hollywood. However, a problem arises in that throughout the film it’s hard to get a grasp of who Isaac’s character really is, what his story is, what he wants and why he wants it. It is all underdeveloped to the point that it’s hard to connect with his plight. We know he wants power, like every character does in these films, but we’re never given a supportive background or interesting development other than a cut-and-paste cliché character arc. As a result, Isaac gives a powerful performance, but with the rest of the film falling so flat around him it’s hard to not wish he was allowed to do it in a better film.

a most violent year

somewhere deep down inside A Most Violent Year lies an impressive film, but that it can’t quite escape the shackles that prevents it from reaching its full potential

The rest of the cast are cursed with the same damning pattern: Albert Brooks is terribly underused, and Jessica Chastain is great while she’s there, but like many other aspects of the film she completely disappears for much of the second half only to reappear when the script seemingly remembers that she existed. It’s occasionally painful to watch A Most Violent Year as it so obviously lets its best assets go to waste.

When all is said and done, though, A Most Violent Year definitely isn’t the worst film you could see at the moment, but it’s probably the one that squandered the most potential. An all-star cast and some occasionally engaging set-pieces do little to save a movie that suffers from such large inherent flaws. Its ambition is appreciated, and it’s always nice to see a film that’s trying to do something new with an established genre, but it’s even worse to see it stumble so hard in its effort.

There’s sufficient to be found that’s competent enough, and technically speaking it’s an accomplished film with some beautifully recreated 1980s sets and some occasionally stylish cinematography. But all of this serves as window-dressing to distract you from the fact that A Most Violent Year could have, and should have, been so, so much more.

A Most Violent Year is now showing at the Tyneside Cinema.

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