"A Most Violent Year" is one of the best made boring movies imaginable. The craft is impeccable. The attention to detail is first-rate. The ensemble, fronted by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, is singularly convincing.
And yet writer-director J.C. Chandor ("All Is Lost"), further staking out territory as his generation's Sidney Lumet, immerses it all in a narrative that is torpid at best and downright sleep-inducing at worst, a foray into the heating oil business in New York circa 1981 that drowns in drabness under a low winter sun.
Isaac plays executive Abel Morales, trying to move his company forward with the purchase of an abandoned industrial area on the Brooklyn waterfront while his trucks come under increasing siege by hijackers.
Chandor wants to capture the spirit of an American capitalist, a relentless go-getter who knows what he wants from his professional life and will do what he must to achieve it. Abel is a relentless shark, with slicked-back hair, fancy suits and the sort of work ethic that we've been taught equals success. There can be a thin line, of course, between legitimate business and corruption and the movie ambitiously investigates the ways the latter seeps into and informs the former.
Smart as it might be, though, the film is utterly sapped of energy and spirit. Lumet's portraits of urban corruption felt urgent because they were imbued with the vibrancy of New York's streets. This one is as closed off and cloistered as its main character, taking place in hushed conversations and dimly lit rooms with a couple of action-oriented set pieces to break up the monotony.
If you have a stomach for a screenplay that consists primarily of voluminous business talk -- and by that I mean business talk that really does amount to little but financial negotiating -- you'll probably be riveted by a movie that might be described as the feature film version of a business page from an early '80s paper. There's certainly some exceptional cinematography, especially in a scene set along a highway that's both a logistical achievement and a sweeping masterwork. But the larger morality tale is lost.