Critical Dissent: Debating A Most Violent Year with Stephen A Russell

A Most Violent Year (2014)A Most Violent Year, the third film from Oscar-nominated director J.C. Chandor, has received a generally positive reaction from the critical community, earning 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (if you care about that kinda thing) along with a Best Supporting Actress (Drama) Golden Globe nom for Jessica Chastain. I was certainly in the “generally positive” camp regarding the film, giving it 3.5 stars and describing it as “an allegory for … America’s actions as a global citizen” demonstrating “an immaculate command of mise-en-scène.” I wouldn’t describe it as a masterpiece – its deliberate pace occasionally veers towards listlessness – but thanks in large part to the performances of Chastain, Oscar Isaac and David Oyelowo, it’s my favourite of Chandor’s films thus far.

But there’s no such thing as critical consensus. I’ve spoken to (or, at least, skimmed the Letterboxd reviews of) a number of respected critics who were less impressed by A Most Violent Year. What follows is the first instalment of Critical Dissent, a (hopefully) weekly feature where another film critic and myself debate the features and faults of a film currently in Australian cinemas (Note: readers should expect to encounter spoilers). First up to the plate is Stephen A Russell, a Scottish/Australian dual citizen who’s been calling Melbourne home for almost a decade. Writing for the likes of SBS Movies, The Age, The New Daily and sounding off on Joy 94.9 FM, he can generally be expected to provide a candid critique. Stephen can be found on Twitter as @SARussellwords.

Stephen was underwhelmed by A Most Violent Year. So, what were your problems with the film, Stephen?

Stephen: I found it average for several reasons. Firstly, I’m generally quite surprised by the resounding praise for the performances. Though I do agree Chastain shone in a rather undemanding gangster’s moll gone good role, I thought Isaac sleepwalked through an already rather turgid affair. He’s put in far better performances than this, most notably in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis as a similarly furrowed brow character trying against the odds to make things work.

While Oyelowo did also bring some charisma to proceedings, he was so underutilised as to be almost squandered. I found these characters exceedingly stereotypical, and also very thinly sketched to the point of disinterest. The obfuscation of interior purpose is nowhere near as clever as it thinks, in my book.

Dave: The performances were spot-on, for me. Agree that Chastain was fantastic (even if her role was underwritten: a part plot-device, part Lady Macbeth riff that suggests Chandor needs more practice writing female characters), but I also loved Oyelowo and particularly Isaac. The latter certainly gives a withholding performance, but I think it’s a deliberate – and correct – choice. He inverts the classic gangster anti-hero by just about convincing you he’s genuinely a good guy before revealing his true colours at the climax. Sure, it’s the exact arc from The Godfather, but dammit, he’s almost as good as Pacino in that.

Stephen: I’m glad you brought up The Godfather. This felt very Coppola-lite to me, or as Ryan Gilby of the New Statesmen succinctly put it, “this tale of crime, corruption and soft furnishings resembles a Sunday-supplement Scorsese.” I just felt a real dearth of originality in the script.

I also had issues with several deeply silly plot machinations that to me highlighted serious weaknesses with Chandor’s undercooked screenplay. Abel and Anna’s barely-there children are good examples – they function as little more than plot contrivances, to find the gun that introduces an increased threat level and to host the party scene that feature the absolutely ridiculous cop search that fails to find Abel sitting under the house on a pile of boxes containing dodgy paperwork. That’s lazy writing right there.

Dave: I’ll concede that the plot particulars don’t necessarily hang together as well as they could. Certainly for a couple that are supposed to be parents, Isaac and Chastain’s characters don’t seem to spend any of their time parenting (though this is a pretty common problem in cinema and, especially, television). It’s not especially original, either, though I took that as evidence of homage/pastiche rather than a lack of imagination (and even Scorsese-lite is fine by me).

And, yeah, the plausibility of Morales successfully hiding the boxes beneath his house from an armada of police officers looking for whatever dirt they can find is…tenuous, at best. But this all assumes it’s supposed to be taken literally, a supposition I’m not sure I can entirely agree with. Metaphorically – and, man, does Chandor love his metaphors, if his past films are anything to go by – I think it’s an effective scene on a number of levels. The (presumably) dirty ledgers in plain sight beneath the house, Isaac pensively perched upon them…it’s a potent way to evoke companies founded on criminality that is simultaneously obvious (poorly hidden) and ignored (both by ‘burying’ it under the house and simply because the cops can’t find it despite its terrible hiding place).

Stephen: I’ve heard this take from several colleagues, but the thing is, I’m afraid I reckon that only makes the film worse – overtly clunky metaphors are a step down again from poor internal logic.

Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year (2014)I also had issues with the film’s dreary look. The glacial pace and half-hearted moral ambiguity weren’t aided by cinematographer Bradford Young’s heavy-handed grey-washing. There was also some pretty poor framing on show, no doubt another attempt to mask character motivation, but there’s one scene where Abel is talking to a guy about getting guns on the trucks and the camera keeps its focus on a wall of pipes the entire time. PIPES!

Dave: I was all prepared to try and justify the focus on pipes – perhaps it’s another metaphor, this time for the prominence of industry! – but to be honest I don’t remember that shot at all. Still, the look of A Most Violent Year was a big part of why I liked it; even when I was on the fence in its early scenes, the cold, almost distancing aesthetic held my interest. I found the compositions consistently excellent (it helped that the slow pace gave you plenty of time to soak them in); I can still vividly recall a shot in Morales’ office that shoves him to the corner of the frame but uses the window behind him and the room’s geometry to draw your attention to him nonetheless. Or little touches like the crampedness of the Assistant DA’s office, suggesting the marked financial difference between the two men and hinting at his climactic back-pedalling.

Stephen: Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think it was without any merit. The actual cityscapes were incredible, and there were some thrilling chase sequences, but I really didn’t feel like I was seeing anything particularly original/compelling, and for me, that ending was hugely signposted. If anyone felt Abel was a big, cuddly teddy bear, they really weren’t paying attention.

Dave: Perhaps this is my personal bias speaking; as a big Oscar Isaac fan, I sided with him throughout even as it became increasingly clear that there was a wide gulf between his espoused principles and his actual intent. So I wanted to be on his side and was totally suckered when he turned out to be the kind of evil son-of-a-bitch that actually succeeds in the American industry. (And, oh yeah, that chase scene was fantastic.)

Stephen: Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re meant to side with him regardless, though I do think the hints that he’s a sham are quite overt. I really rate like Isaac too, I just felt he was let down by an ok but not particularly interesting film around him. To be honest, it would have all but vanished from my mind by now, had you not asked me to debate it with you 😉 Maybe it’s too mean, but I honestly don’t think it will hold up so well in ten-plus years’ time.

Dave: It’ll definitely be interesting to see how history regards this film; will it be a highlight of a celebrated director’s career, or perhaps a forgotten curio in the filmography of Oscar Isaac, five-time Oscar winner? (I would be entirely okay with the latter outcome.) Thanks for discussing A Most Violent Year with me, Stephen – perhaps we’ll touch base again on its ten year anniversary!

Stephen: Sure. You may need to refresh my memory!

4 thoughts on “Critical Dissent: Debating A Most Violent Year with Stephen A Russell

  1. I can totally understand the argument but I loved this film. I found it to be tense and gripping and I thought Isaac and Chastain were great!

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