A Most Violent Year‘s title refers to how New York City saw historic highs in crime rates during 1981, and both the city and that year serve as the backdrop to the film. It is not itself a violent picture, keeping gunplay and the like to a minimum. The idea is that brutality is instead in the background radiation, surrounding the characters at all times. They react in divergent ways to this climate. Some of them live and breathe this atmosphere. Others suffocate.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is suffocating. Which shouldn’t be the case; his heating oil company is more successful than it’s ever been, and he’s about to purchase some bayside property that will put him on top of the game. He and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) have a new, huge house. All should be well, but 1981 even infects the heating oil business. Abel thought upward mobility would carry him away from the criminal bookkeeping and his wife’s mob connections which allowed him to get a leg up in the first place, but police investigators are closing in, which causes him to lose the massive loan he needed to make his big land grab. Given a month to come up with the money he needs, Abel scrambles, desperately hoping to avoid taking anything further from the mob.

It’s an old trope — the pseudo-criminal wants to purge his life of all its old, rotten connections, but circumstances force him to instead go all in and embrace the lifestyle. In most crime movies, that turnaround comes around a third or, at most, halfway through. But A Most Violent Year sees its protagonist resisting the whole way through. The temptation is the point, far more than anything having to actually do with crime. This makes A Most Violent Year an anti-gangster gangster film. That’s an interesting tack, and it would be wonderful if the movie pulled it off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite succeed in doing so.

The most immediately apparent problem with this kind of setup is that it can get stiflingly repetitive, and fast. Which this movie does. There’s not much screwing in the pressure on Abel as the story unfolds. He thinks he’s found an out, it doesn’t work, his wife yells at him, some business partner gravely intones that he has no choice — lather, rinse, repeat. Any given one of these cycles could fall out of the narrative without the viewer catching that something’s missing. It makes the movie seem far longer than its two hours. It’d be forgivable if each refrain cast some kind of new light on its characters, themes, or both, but that’s not really the case.

Isaac again demonstrates his effortless stoic, contemplative masculinity. I really wish the movie was about Chastain, who plays the opposite of the archetypical mob wife. Whereas it’s traditionally the gangster wife’s role to urge the husband away from a life of crime, she instead harangues him to do whatever he must to get ahead. However, she’s still serving the archetypical function of doing nothing for the story besides acting as a thorn in the protagonist’s side without ever taking real action herself, so it’s not really all that progressive, even if it is more fun to watch.

A Most Violent Year is put together well. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) has proven adept at helming perfectly adequate productions that turn out to be hollow as soon as you stick a shovel in them to find some kind of depth. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot this year’s Selma) has a handsome visual sense. There’s a solid block of character actors propping up Isaac and Chastain. But it’s all in the service of a listless story. This is a film entirely bereft of list.