Crime thrillers come in three sizes. Most common is the tight, modest story concerning a small group of people involved in a simple plot. These include Mean Streets, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The King of New York, On the Waterfront, and The Killing. The least common, and the hardest to pull off, is the grandiose epic. Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather Trilogy, and Goodfellas are rare examples of the successful ones. Then there are the modest stories with epic pretensions, such as Heat and The Untouchables, which are the worst of the three. These movies usually have something going for them, but are ultimately undone by the obesity of their ambitions.
“A Most Violent Year” fits into size three. This is the kind of story Warner Brothers, back in the thirties, used to tell in 70 minutes. Writer-director J.C. Chandor gives it 125. A simple tale of trucks being highjacked for their cargo is stretched in all directions in an attempt to give it a weight it simply cannot sustain.
Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, as he demonstrated in the lead role in 2013’s “Inside Llewin Davis,” but here, as the owner of a trucking company whose plan to monoplolize Brooklyn’s oil distribtion is threatened by both the law and his fellow gangsters, comes across as a poor man’s Al Pacino failing to make the part his own. As his wife, Jessica Chastain plays her scenes well, but has no existance when she is off the screen. Representing the law, we get to see another side of David Oyelowod, who played Martin Luther King in last year’s “Selma.” He could be an actor to watch, but not here.
Writer-director Chando wants to paint a Brooklyn mural of a season in hell. He piles his paints on so thick that the picture is obscured by its globs and drips. His characters don’t have any will of their own. When the police interrupt a shoot out a besieged truck driver is having with some highjackers, he joins his adversaries in their flight from the police. When the police later ask him why he ran, he should have admitted that the script forced him to do so.
“A Most Violent Year” manages to keep its audience rooting for a sleazy protagonist whose idea of truth is being able to maintain eye contact with a person while telling the most outrageous lies. It is like a hand of poker in which everybody is bluffing with a handful of nothing…and nobody wants to fold.