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Jessica Chastain, left, and Oscar Isacc star in “A Most Violent Year.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima
Jessica Chastain, left, and Oscar Isacc star in “A Most Violent Year.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima
Arts Community Community News Rancho Santa Fe

Film Review: Tale of violence, corruption in 1980s New York falls flat

The misleadingly titled “A Most Violent Year” is nowhere even close to the searing dark tale it pretends to be, and not even accomplished actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain can do anything to salvage it.

There are two ways to experience disappointment when going to the movies. The first is seeing your expectations play out right before your eyes.

The second is realizing what you thought might be excellent turn out to be awful. Neither is worse than the other; in my experience, both cause utter dissatisfaction.

Now a quick glance at the hype on “A Most Violent Year” tells me what to anticipate: a gripping crime drama centered on a 1981 New York City couple trying to expand their heating oil business, even as they contend with rampant corruption and violence.

A seemingly premium invitation, yes, but this façade conceals a letdown waiting to reveal its true identity.

And just what is the true identity of “A Most Violent Year”? It’s a jaw-droppingly non-violent bore — the complete opposite of what we’ve been led to believe. They say this is deserving of awards-worthy attention? As if!

I was told this film would live up to its electrifying title, especially since the winter of 1981 was, to my knowledge, one of the Big Apple’s most turbulent years.

That is not the case here, as there’s hardly any “violence” to speak of, and none associated with the leading characters. Aside from the urban decay reflected in the graffiti color scheme and a self-imposed business situation becoming desperate, very little to nothing about  “A Most Violent Year” spells bloodshed.

What really displeases me is how the characterizations don’t have much meat to chew on, and thus the audience will likely have minimal empathy for the main players. You’d think an immigrant businessman with strong convictions and his tigress wife pulling out all the stops to secure their future would have something to offer.

Alas, what they bring to the table lacks an engaging human connection and proves to be an underwhelming 125 minutes.

The culprit responsible for exacerbating this problem is the camerawork, which, somehow, can’t seem to make up its mind as to whom should be the center of focus. And when you don’t have a cinematographic balance between your two leads, it’s hard to determine the quality of the actors’ performances.

All those continuous close-ups of Isaac over-emphasize him to the point where you have to wonder if “A Most Violent Year” is really about him alone instead of him and his wife. In the case of Chastain, the camera scarcely allows her to flesh-out her so-called “mob princess” role, resulting in her total screen time being far less than what the previews would have you believe.

And to think, even with Isaac standing beside her, I thought she was going to be the main attraction!

As I mentioned at the beginning, moviegoing disappointment can take two forms: the one you see coming, and the other you don’t anticipate. “A Most Violent Year” is a perfect fit for the latter category, and anyone who’s looking forward to an intriguing actors’ project won’t get their money’s worth here. Do yourself a favor and pretend this film never happened.

MPAA rating: R for language and some violence.

Run time: 2 hours 5 minutes

Playing: In limited release