With slicked back hair, shadowy dealings, and 1981 New York City (statistically the city’s most crime-ridden year) as the film’s backdrop, one might expect J.C Chandor’s A Most Violent Year to be bloodier than a Quentin Tarantino movie on cocaine. Chandor’s admirably restrained film is anything but a gangster film. Sure, it has all the visual hallmarks of a gangster film: a shadowy organizational meeting in a darkened dingy NYC restaurant, some unfortunate soul being dumped into a dirt ditch, and passive-aggressive conversations between two competitors in a barbershop. But you would be hard-pressed to find a gangster in the film.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is not a gangster, and with luck and help from a few, um, what should I call them… friends, he’ll never have to be. He looks like one, however, with his cashmere coat and jet black slicked back hair, resembling a young Al Pacino. Abel owns a successful oil distribution company, providing warmth for thousands of households in the New York City area. He has recently placed the down payment for the purchase of a loading dock that will give him direct access to mass shipments of oil, thus providing him with the head’s up on the competition. But he has only thirty days to come up with the rest of the money to secure the land deal. Abel and his company are under attack from two fronts. His petrol-filled trucks are being robbed by armed men, and the NY District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is coming after his company for alleged criminal activities. The recent political and physical danger to the company and its personnel is causing the financial backers to drop out. Abel must quickly gather the money from friend or foe and wrestle with his aversion to arming his employees in fear that it will give the DA fodder to shut down his business.
Jessica Chastain (Interstellar) appears as Anna, Abel’s wife. She sports a heavy and sometimes cartoony Bronx accent. She is Lady Macbeth to Abel’s Macbeth. She seemingly has all the balls in the family and is willing to threaten or murder to secure the success of her husband and his company; decisions which never come from a place of altruism. She is the closest example of a gangster that the movie ever presents. Abel and Anna’s shoestring relationship is constantly being endangered by her vague threats to involve her incarcerated father (and former mobster) in Abel’s business affairs. A stand-out performance comes from Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer. Brooks as of late likes playing the bad guys since his intimidating appearance in 2011’s Drive. Here Brooks uses his affability to act as Abel’s corrupted Jiminy Cricket. It is a shame he is not in more scenes.
A Most Violent Year is a multifaceted examination of the conventions of a genre stretching back to the 1930s. It looks at the dividing line between a criminal and those who make their living on Wall Street giving loans to those who cannot afford them, and how they might not be mutually exclusive. The film keeps the audience on the periphery of each individual’s crimes, never letting you fully pass judgment on any character. If you are looking for a shoot ’em up film with blaring tommy guns, you might be disappointed. With that in mind, A Most Violent Year is a worthwhile financial investment for any cinemagoer.