I can’t even say, let alone think anything, about the title of “A Most Violent Year” without using a Queens English enunciation, each syllable sharing equal parts attention and glottal contraction. That we, the audience expecting a gritty, violent gangster-like picture, are left with our leading man Abel (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) borrowing overloaded rhetoric from J.C. Chandor’s sinewy script leaves something — everything — to be desired: like for Abel to talk with, at least, minor imperfection as if he actually has something to lose, something human. The movie never compels us to lend a hand to Abel, someone so multifaceted yet one-dimensional that we can’t care about his cause because we never really understand why, or are even convinced that he actually wants to corner the heating-oil market.
This is not a diatribe. It’s not because I’m about to, with economy in mind, say some good things. Bradford Young (“Selma”), the film’s director of photography, lenses with meticulous care, culminating in a bridge chase scene where his cam snakes between standstill traffic followed by a tracking shot backpedaling just fast enough to keep our sprinting subject framed finely. Pictorially, his daylight scenes bleed a soft blue and his night shots play with moody contrast, almost to question the so-called moral compass of our Abel, whose grayish-black pompadour often fades into the unlit back.
Isaac’s Abel, I think, does what he can given the weakness of a script that burps lines like, “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up in the same place,” a blurb better engineered to tell your kid growing up than in a movie that wishes it had the same spine as that aphorism. Isaac’s delivery, his acting, with these ambition-wet lines feels, if anything, actorly. His knee-kissing sandy overcoat and bespoke suits create the illusion of an oil baron better than his actual words, which are heavy like lead and preachy like a preacher. But worst of all, all of this overacting and fatless writing could be rendered negligible had our Abel showed us, proved to us, that this expansion he “dreams” of was, in fact, a dream of his. Instead, it falls limp as an empty drive to, um, build a bigger manse? Prove to the other dickhead NYC barons that he reigns supreme? The latter could’ve worked, but the movie only pokes at these ostensibly more interesting characters.
The internet contends this movie is about “making it,” “America” and “making it in America.” But how can a movie so adamant on walking in dumb circles, from sidesplitting plot-point predictability to Jessica Chastain’s on-then-off bad Brooklyn accent, ever “make it” if the only glimmer of progress is a piece of land, one that signifies thicker profits but no palpable emotional utility gained for the purchaser?
“Shucks!” goes the moviegoer when Abel’s immigrant employee, Julien, reappears in the final minutes of the film, after having been discarded by the script, to wave a gun around like a whack-job. We wince because Julien, eyes jaundiced and poor English tremulous, hints at what this movie could have been: A story about a real American Dream and how it, well, gets warped out of shape. It’s a slovenly denouement, but it would have been nice to see Abel show just half the vim, the quasi-psychosis, in his vocation that Julien did in being a lowly teamster.