The world needs fewer tasteful movies about distasteful things. It definitely doesn't need J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, in which Oscar Isaac plays a nouveau-riche heating-oil baron in early-1980s New York who's striving to maintain his principles amid industry corruption and generally scummy behavior. Isaac's Abel Morales skulks through most of the numbingly wayward two-hour runtime in a black turtleneck and camelhair coat, the trappings of a guy who, after working hard for years, has only recently been able to enjoy the finer things in life. His wife, Jessica Chastain's Anna, is a gangster's daughter but seems happy to tread the straight and narrow for the love of her husband: A partner in his gradually expanding business, she's in charge of keeping the books, tippety-tapping figures into the adding machine with the eraser end of a pencil, a technique that's either something she saw once in an old movie or a way of preserving the integrity of her Lee Press-On nails.
But the couple's business, and their hard-earned cushy life, is under siege. Someone — Abel has no idea who — has been brutally assaulting his drivers and making off with their trucks, each containing several thousand dollars' worth of oil. Meanwhile, a nosy assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) smells a rat — gee, y'think? — and has decided to poke around in Abel's industry, which includes all manner of stereotypically penny-pinching Jews, fat guys with cigars, and faux-classy squash enthusiasts. Abel, standing straight and tall in his camel coat, has the very noble and very boring job of looking everyone in the eye and speaking the truth, because someone has to do it. Here and there, Alex Ebert's score drones ominously, asking the musical question, "So, is this year violent enough for you yet?"
It's really just sort of dumb. Chandor has chosen to set his third picture during what was statistically the most crime-ridden year in New York's history, 1981. That would have been all well and good, but where are all the people? A Most Violent Year boasts a cast of dozens. If Chandor didn't keep reminding us that his movie is set in New York — via the occasional radio report of a scary stabbing, a random skyline shot, or a glimpse or two of a graffiti-covered subway car — you'd be just as likely to think all of this belabored intrigue were unfolding on the outskirts of Buffalo or Pittsburgh or any other North American city. For a movie that has so much invested in its sense of place, A Most Violent Year is jarringly provincial; you can practically hear the tumbleweeds whistling.
Admittedly, filmmakers don't have to spend a lot of money to make a good picture, and Chandor, in particular, seems to take pride in doing a lot with a little. His last movie, All Is Lost — in which Robert Redford played a lone sailor, using his wiles to survive at sea — was quietly ambitious, elegant in its seeming simplicity. A Most Violent Year is more elaborate, but it isn't nearly as compelling. Chandor, who also wrote the script, pours a ton of energy into exploring the dark side of the American dream — it's as if he set out to make The Godfather, only with heating oil. But from scene to scene, the stakes never mount. Bradford Young's faux-Gordon Willis cinematography, suitably shadowy but lacking Willis' velvety punch, hints at dark, doom-laden themes that never emerge. Only one plot thread, involving a hardworking driver yearning for the proverbial better life (he's played by Elyes Gabel), resonates in any marginally affecting way, and Chandor seems to know it: He milks it, hard.
The rest of the time, we're left watching Chastain play the Brooklyn moll turned tough mommy and even tougher business helpmeet, dropping her G's all over the place, lest we forget where she comes from. Anna and Abel have two kids who appear in a scene or two and then disappear conveniently, like ghost children; at one point, Abel, preoccupied with his business problems, asks Anna: "How are the girls? I never see them." Neither do we, but they're handy whenever Anna feels the urge to give a speech about what she's willing to do to protect her family. And when Abel goes off to broker an extremely risky deal, Anna comes along, carrying the greenback-stuffed briefcase: Chastain looks regal, standing tall and slim in an ivory wool wrap coat that looks like money, but she's still stuck playing a stock character with some ostensibly interesting angles pasted on.
Isaac has more to do, and he's good enough to make you believe in the existential torture Abel puts himself through to stay, more or less, on the righteous path. He's best in a chase scene that culminates in a mini-breakdown of sorts: It's the first time Abel is pushed to violence, and it's mildly cathartic, given how virtuously he behaves among the movie's various skunks and scoundrels (some of whom actually work for him — Albert Brooks appears as his company's in-house legal counsel and unofficial fixer, though he doesn't have much to do except show up now and then with dubious advice). But radiating so much unimpeachable moral rectitude must be exhausting, and even Isaac, normally a marvelously astute actor, groans under the weight. There's only so much soulful gazing you can ask of one performer. Grand in its aims but tepid in its conclusions, A Most Violent Year burns slowly and gives off very little heat. It's not really that violent. But it sure feels like a year.