The title of A Most Violent Year refers to 1981, the year the movie takes place. This was, in fact, the most violent year in New York City to that point, and the film is rooted in that violence. This story could not happen in a peaceful time. While there is much less violence in the film itself than the title would suggest, the sporadic bursts we do see create a context for the film, a harshness and a perpetual threat that drives everything that happens. But there are other contexts at play here as well. The movie is firmly entrenched in its inspirations: cop and gangster movies of the 1970s. It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking of a dozen others, especially if you grew up on them, as writer/director J.C. Chandor clearly did. This movie is The Godfather (probably a couple Godfathers), The Conversation, The French Connection… It’s a tribute and an homage, but it’s also something unique. It may look like one of those aggressively masculine stories of gangsters and corruption. But it manages at the same time to be something quieter, more personal, and deeply complicated.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) looks like your typical mob movie gangster. He’s ambitious, he’s got that Pacino helmet hair down, and he runs a heat oil company, in one of the most corrupt industries of the time. But where we may look at this story and think we know what to expect (good vs. bad, criminal vs. his city, vs. the police, vs. his family), we are instead given something much more nuanced. Abel starts the film making a down payment on a dock property which will expand his business many times over. He gives a suitcase containing $1.5 million to the Orthodox Jewish moneylenders he’s buying from, and is told he has one month to come up with the same amount, or he loses his deposit and the property goes to his competitors. Those competitors, meanwhile, have taken to hijacking his fuel trucks, putting his drivers in the hospital and costing him thousands. At the same time, an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is looking into industry-wide corruption, focusing heavily on Abel’s practices. This is the world that Abel exists in. One of constant high stakes, corruption, and, yes, violence. But as corrupt at Abel’s world may be, he prides himself on how hard he works not to be a criminal. But what does that mean, exactly, to not be a criminal? Especially in his job, his world? To what extent is he really honest? How much of his morality is fixed, and how much is dependent on his ability to deflect and deny? Sometimes not being a criminal is just believing yourself to be a good person, and then turning a blind eye to his field, and, more specifically, to his wife/bookkeeper. Jessica Chastain plays Anna Morales as a fierce, aggressive partner to Abel. She’s his Lady MacBeth, if Lady MacBeth had come right out and called her husband a p*ssy.
If you grew up in the 70s or 80s, obsessively watching these cop and mafia movies in the theaters or on cable, you may feel like A Most Violent Year was made just for you. But even if that genre is not your bag, this movie likely will be. As much as it looks like part of that oeuvre, it is in many ways the antithesis to it. It romanticizes the genre, as Abel romanticizes his own situation. He wants so badly to be different, to break away from that genre, but has no idea (or really, doesn’t even try to figure out) how to live the life he wants, with money, respect, his gorgeous wife and home, any other way. The only way he sees is to dive head first into the fray. The movie is a delicate look at an explosive story, and it’s executed perfectly. What we’re given is a series of low, monotonous, usually close-up conversations, interspersed with scenes of intense violence. The tension this creates is a force you cannot look away from. Here are some other forces you’re sure to find difficult to look away from:
This movie will hook you from every angle, and it won’t let go until it decides it’s time.