Lawrence Toppman

‘A Most Violent Year’ is mostly a muddle

Writer-director J.C. Chandor makes movies about people in danger of drowning – morally so in the Wall Street snake pit of “Margin Call,” literally so in the sea saga “All Is Lost,” and now financially in “A Most Violent Year.”

The year is 1981, supposedly one of the most crime-ridden times in New York City history. The film shows little of that, except for trucks being stolen and drivers beaten by thugs who hijack heating oil. The title refers metaphorically to Abel Morales, who spends a year resisting pressure to do violence to his conscience.

Abel (Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis”) has taken over a heating oil company and put a down payment on a piece of ground that may make him rich: It’s along the East River, so he can offload oil directly from ships to tanks. He commits his life savings to the deal but doesn’t secure financing for the $1.5 million he still owes – a ridiculous mistake for this veteran businessman, but an element typical of Chandor’s shoddy plotting. Now Abel has just 30 days to raise that money, and circumstances go against him.

He constantly claims high moral ground. He tries to talk the thieves’ presumed bosses into letting him alone, but he won’t retaliate with violence. He won’t take help from wife Anna’s mob-connected family, though she (Jessica Chastain) insists he should. He defies suggestions from their attorney (Albert Brooks) and a Teamster boss (Peter Gerety) that the drivers be armed.

But is Abel quite innocent? He talks ambiguously about following “standard industry practices,” and a district attorney (David Oyelowo) plans to bring multiple charges against his company, including fraud and tax evasion.

Abel’s name suggests he’s sinned against, but are all the people on the other side Cains? Does Chandor simply want to make the point that no one can lie down with dogs and get up without fleas? Cinematographer Bradford Young underlines this tired idea by shooting through filters that turn Abel’s world a dingy yellow.

The story’s unbelievable, end to end. The D.A. gets a warrant for Abel’s business records; as cops enter by the front door of his house, he takes boxes out back and hides them in plain sight under his deck, where no one looks. The solution to the mystery of the stolen oil is a letdown, and a late revelation makes nonsense of Abel’s financial dilemma.

As in “All Is Lost,” Chandor provides no backstory. But that was a simple sink-or-survive tale about one stubborn, silent man: We didn’t need to invest emotion in him. We should do so for Abel, but Chandor gives us little reason.

The chameleonic Isaac returns to his Cuban-Guatemalan roots to play a Latino businessman of unidentified origin, and he builds a character with little raw material. Chastain gives an externalized performance – her first, as far as I know – while Oyelowo, Brooks and Alessandro Nivola (as a rich rival) go through simple paces competently.

Elyes Gabel (“Scorpion”) galvanizes the movie as Julian, an ill-fated Latino driver whose failure metaphorically balances Abel’s success. But you could take his character out of the picture without affecting the main narrative much, and that’s the bulk of the problem: Chandor merely seems to be making points about corruption, not making people come to life.

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