A Most Violent Year is a film all about choices. It’s protagonist, Abel Morales, is a man constantly faced with the temptation of crossing the line between right and wrong. Many times throughout the film it seems that it would be easier, more rational even, for him to abandon those burdensome, fanciful notions of integrity and embrace the darkness. It is the story of man forced to walk the thin line between murky moral ambiguity and outright criminality and trying desperately, to the frustration of those around him, to cling onto the right side.
The film follows Morales, played by Oscar Isaacs, as he tries to build his heating oil business into an empire. This is New York in the 1980s however, a difficult time to be an entrepreneur. The Big Apple is in the midst of one of the most violent periods in it’s history. The movie is set in 1981, statistically the city’s worst year for violent crime since records began. Against this backdrop of urban decay and rampant disorder, Morales has to contend with an ambitious police investigator scrutinizing his business, armed robbers targeting his delivery trucks and a variety of menacing competitors and their scheming ways.
Against these obstacles though, Morales can count on the support of his formidable, headstrong wife, Anna, impressively brought to life by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar). Together they are determined to stave off the police, discover who is behind the hijackings and raise the money to buy a huge new storage facility that will take their business and their lives to the next level of the American dream. Morales, however, is determined to achieve all of this by following ‘the most right’ way, steadfastly refusing to become the villain that circumstances are conspiring to turn him into.
The film deliberately plays with the audience’s expectations, building up to one familiar story and then turning in a different direction. It sets the scene for the classic gangster narrative, but Morales never takes the plunge. It looks like a gangster movie, sounds like a gangster movie, but is missing the crucial element; the gangster. Morales bears a striking resemblance to the most famous organized crime figure in American cinema, Michael Corleone. Similarly his wife Anna shares the same sense of style as Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic mob wife in Scarface. But these appearances are intentionally deceiving. Morales may look every inch the cunning don but he never aspires to be anything more sinister than a ruthlessly ambitious but honest businessman.
This makes for a refreshing change. The rise-and-fall gangster epic has been done so many times down the decades that it’s interesting to see a film do something different with it. Instead of following a well-worn path, A Most Violent Year chooses to find another story about a character who will not become a crook and tries to ‘make it’ on the straight and narrow (some shady ‘creative’ accounting aside). It’s a compelling idea that takes a played-out genre and breathes new life into it by taking it in a new direction.
The edgy, threatening atmosphere of New York at that time is also well captured. Although, ironically considering the title, it’s not a particularly violent film, there is a sense that around every corner danger is lurking. It’s a dark place, filled with shadows and decay. This helps to build up the tension and gives the audience a real feel for what it must have been like.
However, the film is far from flawless. Morales is a resolute protagonist but also a cold one. He shows little emotion and never seems to be shaken by the variety of troubles that come his way. Throughout it all he remains calm, collected and immaculately presented. Even as he’s chasing robbers through the subway or facing prosecution or his big dream looks about to collapse, he never seems to really feel the pressure. He is also so relentlessly honest that there never seems any danger of him actually going over to the dark side. For a film about choices, there’s very little doubt about the choice Morales is going to make. A few more flaws, a little more internal strife might have made for a less upstanding but more human and engaging hero.
Additionally, while the film sets out an interesting vision of New York it would be nice to see it dive in a bit deeper. We only ever see snapshots of the city and the times, a fuller picture is never shown. Considering how well the film does with these little glimpses, it’s a shame it doesn’t take a wider look at the problems, the culture and the feel of the place.
On first impressions, a full feature length drama about the heating oil industry doesn’t exactly sound like a thrilling proposition. The fact then that this film manages to spin such a tense and entertaining story out of the subject is proof of its cleverness and quality. It may not be an outright classic and it didn’t generated the Oscar buzz that some anticipated, but it is a gritty and compelling ride. A Most Violent Year is an intelligent, brooding film that successfully immerses the viewer into it’s shadowy world.