A Most Violent Year
Posted January 25, 2015 by Daniel Hodgson in
Abel’s pacifism stagnates A Most Violent Year. He’s a non-participant in his own story.
Gangsters like to think of themselves as businessmen, but businessmen don’t like to think of themselves as gangsters.
Take for example New York entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who prides himself on playing by the rules, even though he’s in a dirty, cut-throat business. When his drivers are beaten and his oil trucks are stolen, he refuses to allow his men to carry guns to defend themselves. He will have nothing to do with violence, even when he finds an armed man outside of his home one evening.
His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) gets frustrated with his refusal to take action. I couldn’t have sympathized more. Abel’s pacifism stagnates A Most Violent Year‘s story, a 1981-set crime drama, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, who also helmed Margin Call and All is Lost.
Abel has invested five year’s savings into a down payment to purchase a harbor property that will expand his business. However, he has 30 days to come up with the rest of the money, or he forfeits everything.
Meanwhile, the district attorney (David Oyelowo), who’s been investigating his business for two years, informs Abel that he will soon indict him on multiple charges. The charges alone could mean bad news for the bank loan he needs for his upcoming property deal.
A Most Violent Year is about all these bad things, possibly random and unrelated, that are happening to an honorable, decent man, and how he tries to keep himself above the violence. However, a story cannot be about a man who does nothing because of his principals. It needs to be about how he takes action because of what he believes in. The story needs a protagonist, a hero. By the time Abel does anything, it’s too little, and too late. He’s a non-participant in his own story.
If Abel plays by the rules, the movie itself certainly doesn’t in how it tells the story and in its editing. Spoilers from here on.
Early on, Anna acquires a gun, much to Abel’s displeasure. The principle of Chekov’s Gun insists that it must be used later on. Otherwise, it’s a setup without a payoff. However, it is never used in a way that has a bearing on the plot.
Anna repeatedly mentions her father, whom Abel bought the business from. Apparently, he was a small-time gangster, and Anna threatens the D.A. by saying she might involve him. But it never happens. Again and again, the screenplay shows a proclivity towards set-ups with no payoffs.
Characters have a way of suddenly appearing and disappearing that suggests that A Most Violent Year has been cut for running time. The first we see of Abel and Anna’s children is when Anna comes home to find her daughter playing with a real gun, evidently left behind by the intruder from the previous evening. It’s an awkward introduction, and I can’t help but get the feeling they were in an earlier scene that ended up on the editing room floor. Or was it never written to begin with?
The final act comes down to how Abel will get the money when the bank loan falls through. He takes out several loans, including one which involves his younger brother (Pico Alexander), who was never referenced before in the story, and is never seen again. Three scenes of this are rendered pointless: his wife, who handles the bookkeeping, reveals she had been skimming money for years, and can pay the balance. The way this solution presents itself to Abel is deus ex machina. To quote Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling: #19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
I can’t help but notice that in projects like this where the writer and director are the same person that the directing is rarely the problem. It’s the writing. Perhaps that says something about which is the more difficult of the two roles. And which job gets the spotlight? The director, almost every time.
The direction is fine in A Year of Violence, and there isn’t a weak performance to be found. Of course, it benefits from a strong cast in Chastain and Isaac. Albert Brooks plays a supporting role as Abel’s attorney, but he’s underused and has little to do.
As a final note, it’s strange that Abel wants to avoid becoming a gangster like his father-in-law at all costs. So, he does not want to follow in the footsteps of someone whom he’s related to only by marriage? Should not the gangster-figure that he does not which to emulate be his own father? I could knit-pick this film further, but you get the idea.