The pattern of this Christmas season at the movies, at least in the prestige releases that I caught, seemed to be “films that aren’t quite as good as their leading male performer.” This was true of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, in which a beefed-up Bradley Cooper inhabited a legendary Iraq War marksman so effectively that you could almost forgive the movie’s reliance on war-movie cliché and rote homefront melodrama. It was also true to some extent of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a very solid, somewhat overpraised civil-rights drama elevated above its conventionality by David Oyelowo’s richly magnetic turn as Martin Luther King Jr.
And it’s true, unfortunately, of the movie I was most eagerly anticipating: A Most Violent Year, J. C. Chandor’s chiaroscuro-rich drama about a would-be heating-oil tycoon in the crime-ridden New York of 1981, which reaches for greatness but doesn’t quite surround its leading man, Oscar Isaac, with the story that his riveting performance deserves.
I last wrote about Chandor and Isaac a little less than a year ago, when their 2013 efforts — the former directing Robert Redford in the seafaring movie All Is Lost, the latter starring as a Beat-era musician in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — were unjustly passed over for Academy Award nominations. At the time, I suggested that by teaming up for A Most Violent Year, they would give this year’s Oscar voters the chance to right both wrongs at once (as well as the snub of Chandor’s phenomenal first movie, Margin Call). And for much of its running time, their new collaboration delivers exactly what I had hoped for — a great, even pantheon-level New York City movie, with direction evoking Coppola or Lumet or Scorsese and an anchoring performance that calls to mind the younger, somber Al Pacino.
Instead of a Mafia scion, though, Isaac is playing a man who technically married into the mob, but who has spent his entire career resisting the professional implications of that choice. His Abel Morales is a Spanish-speaking striver who wooed and wedded the daughter (Jessica Chastain) of some sort of Brooklyn gangster, bought a modest heating-oil company off his father-in-law (for whom it was probably the equivalent of Tony Soprano’s waste-management company), and has tried to run it as an honest, up-and-up concern ever since.
Even without direct mob ties, this isn’t exactly easy, because the heating-oil business as Chandor portrays it is itself a kind of tribal, ethically compromised world of clan-owned companies and turf wars, in which Abel’s rectitude is regarded as either a liability (by his rivals, and sometimes by his wife) or a necessarily bogus pose (by the indictment-preparing district attorney, played with cool restraint by the same Oyelowo who dominates Selma).
But for the man himself, glowering and yet contained, some kind of moral code is clearly essential to his vision of the American Dream: Abel simply cannot be himself, and cannot win the success that self is capable of winning, unless he’s convinced he’s taking what he calls the “most right” path.
That “most” allows some room for compromise, of course, and a lot of the interest of the story involves watching where Abel draws his own lines (there’s a great scene where he instructs his salesman on the fine, not perfectly ethical art of persuading customers to switch their loyalties) and then watching other people, from his wife to his business partner (a mordant Albert Brooks) to a range of secondary players, try to persuade him or pressure him into drawing different ones. As with Michael Corleone’s trajectory, the audience’s rooting interest is divided: We want to see Abel keep his honor, resist his milieu’s downward pull, but as obstacles and complications mount — his trucks are getting hijacked, shadowy figures are menacing his family, his decision to borrow heavily to buy a huge oil-storage facility may bankrupt him — we also have a rooting interest in seeing him give up on rectitude and just somehow go to the mattresses instead.
Chandor deals with this tension differently than did The Godfather, which is wise, but unwisely he decides that his story doesn’t actually need a comprehensive resolution, that he can leave narrative strands dangling and important-seeming characters offstage or underdeveloped. We never meet the mobster in-laws, for instance, depriving us of a useful (at the very least) swath of backstory; interesting minor characters (a neophyte salesman, a tough Teamster captain) are given meaty-seeming introductions and then dropped; the great Alessandro Nivola has two portentous scenes as a mentor-cum-rival that don’t deliver any kind of payoff. In Chekhovian terms, Chandor puts several threatening-looking guns on the wall, but has only one of them — belonging to an impetuous delivery-truck driver — actually get fired.
Perhaps the director, like his rectitude-obsessed protagonist, committed to a certain path and didn’t want to budge — an austerity of plotting, a deliberate withholding of satisfaction, that mirrors the unfinishedness of actually existing life. But he chose poorly: The movie, so great in the early going, ends up feeling like it’s missing 30 minutes, and its accumulated momentum dissipates in the (insufficiently) climactic scenes.
Now of course, the Academy has a long tradition of snubbing A+ work from great directors and then making up for it by garlanding a B+ effort later on, so maybe Chandor will still earn some Oscar recognition (recognition he deserves) for A Most Violent Year. But between the movie’s writer-director and its star, only one delivers his absolute best work.