From its trailers, “A Most Violent Year” appears to be your typical 80s-New-York gangster film, resplendent with thick Brooklyn accents, a handsome well-to-do protagonist in a camel coat, his icy blonde wife and guns, guns, guns galore.
Although the title of the film is derived from the setting (1981, one of the most statistically violent years in the history of New York City), director J.C. Chandor chooses instead to present the tried-and-true mobster film in a very different light — quietly and slowly, with the violence bubbling right under the surface like a long-dormant volcano about to erupt.
The film focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has risen the ranks quickly as a self-made mogul in the oil business. He is aided by his doting wife and book-keeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer Andrew (Albert Brooks) and is known for his moral codes of hard work, restless ambition and risk-taking.
Abel’s freshly-made empire faces a huge threat, however, with his oil trucks being highjacked on the road. Unknown thugs are beating the drivers, throwing them out of the vehicle and taking off with the trucks, only for Abel to find them abandoned and siphoned days later.
In addition, Abel finds his family threatened in their brand new, big, beautiful home, with intruders lurking around at night and leaving loaded guns for his young daughters to find on the front lawn.
Though Abel is getting advice left and right from his wife, his lawyer and the manager of his drivers to fight back and play dirty, Abel refuses over and over again with the reasoning that he is an honest man, he has nothing to hide from the law and that his company will never stoop to the level of his competitors.
Abel’s moral standing is highly contested with the links he has to the mob through his marriage, as Anna is the daughter of a major New York City crimelord, and the fact that his company is under tight investigation by the District Attorney (David Oyelowo).
Chandor has stripped this film down to its basics, with its dialogue and exposition far outweighing flash-bang action. It’s a much more realistic portrait of the struggle behind the American Dream, and Abel’s frustration and weariness is palpable when framed in this way.
The temptation to call upon the mob, to fudge numbers in the books or to use outright violence to solve his problems always lingers tantalizingly within his reach in spite of his repeated declarations of dealing with business in an honest and clean manner.
Anchoring the film is the performances, especially Chastain’s. Far more rash and explosive than her husband, Anna looks every bit the Michelle-Pfeiffer-in-“Scarface” type, but it is interesting to note Chandor’s subversion of that trope here — it is Abel who has married into the mob, not Anna. Anna’s life on the frontlines of watching violent retaliation as the way to get things done is a complete contrast with the level-headed Abel.
Isaac, perhaps one of the best new actors to come to light in the past five years, continues his well-done acting streak in “A Most Violent Year.” As a man constantly pushed to the brink of breaking all he believes in for the safety of his family and his company, Abel’s charisma and tried patience is portrayed in a perfectly nuanced manner.
Though not nearly as exciting as one would expect from a film about New York City in the 80s, “A Most Violent Year’s” quiet power and slow-burn pace leave an entirely different kind of impact on its viewers.
ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: You are not expecting gunfights or mob boss showdowns.