Statistically, the year 1981 was the most violent year in New York’s history. At least 1.2 million crimes is said to have been recorded, including 5,500 rapes, 2,100 murders, and more than 6,000 aggravated assaults. J.C. Chandor’s tough urban drama, set in 1981 New York, has chosen an understandable title “A Most Violent Year” (2014). But, the title could be misleading for many viewers because this film is neither about ruthless mob men nor a treatise on crime circle of old NY City. It is about a first-generation immigrant business trying to keep his head above the deluge of moral corruption. Although the threat of violence looms in the tale, it is more or less aimed at the protagonist’s soul.
Basically, “A Most Violent Year” is the kind of movie Sidney Lumet or Scorsese made in the 70’s and early 80’s. The graffiti-covered subways and dilapidated alleyways and rail yards of Brooklyn 1981 makes us reminisce the Hollywood’s Golden era crime movies. The movie’s central theme of economic or moral survival also goes in sync with director Chandor’s previous two works – “Margin Call” and “All is Lost”. Both the films were about men who saw their world crumble in a matter of hours. However, the slow boil narrative, restrained performances, and subtly expressed character motivations may irk the casual movie viewers, who are all expecting a blood curdling crime saga that lives up to the movie’s title.
The movie starts with the images of a man jogging on city streets juxtaposed with the images of a fuel truck, bearing the name of ‘Standard Heating Oil’, filling oil at the harbor. Later, we see the running man, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) arriving at a port facility to make a deal of their life. As Abel and his lawyer, Andrew (Albert Brooks) is about to propose the deal, one of his truck gets hijacked by couple of thugs. Abel is the owner of a heating oil company, who is about leverage all his savings into buying a storage facility close to a river. The acquisition of the property would give him an upper hand in this business, which seems to be occupied by many powerful, sinister men. Abel pays up $1.5 million and has to pay an additional $1.5 million in 30 days time. There are no worries as the bank has promised to loan that huge sum.
However, couple of bad news makes Abel’s next 30 days, the most nightmarish ones, which could either make him or break him. First, the series of hijacking incidents due to turf war is costing him much. Moreover, his drivers are terrified, especially the anxious young immigrant, Julian (Elyes Gabel). The driver’s union leader demands to give unlicensed handguns for protection. On the other hand, Abel’s business is being investigated by an ambitious, honest prosecutor, Lawrence (David Oyelowo). The prosecutor now seems to have a substantial case that could send Abel to jail for tax frauds.
Abel insists that he hasn’t done anything wrong, but he and his wife quickly stow away boxes of documents, when police come with a search warrant. The couple also finds a mysterious guy with a loaded gun in front of their house and takes it as a warning from their rivals. Anna, the book-keeper and daughter of a small time gangster, wants to seek help from her defiant family. But, Abel values his integrity more than anything (“I spent my whole life trying not to be a gangster”). The rest of the movie is about what this incendiary situation does to Abel’s psyche.
Visually, “A Most Violent Year” (cinematography by Bradford Young), pays a fitting tribute to the aesthetics of Gordon Willis (cinematographer for rich sepia-toned “Godfather”). The dirty and bleak urban landscape plus the ugly industrial corridors are as psychologically piercing as those movies of Alan J Pakula, Coppola, and Scorsese. Although the film comes under the crime, Chandor has constricted it as a nuanced character study of a man, who is about to shed his cocoon of morality. Abel Morales is totally opposed to criminal behavior and deceit, but he gradually realizes that he needs to make his hands dirty to achieve the American dream. While corruption and lies may pave the way to Abel’s rise, what he eventually learns is to possess self-deceit. Abel transforms from being an ideal ethical man to a man with his own warped sense of ethics. The character trajectory is very much like that of Michael Corleone’s rise.
Chandor constructs each sequence to make Abel confront the reality of being an honorable businessman. Couple of scenes tests Abel on whether he would make his hands dirty. In an earlier scene, Abel hits the deer at night, but he is unable to put the deer out of its misery. In the later-half of the film, Abel chases down his truck’s hijackers in a superb car and foot-chase, literally and metaphorically dirtying his hands. The chasing scene confirms to us that the Abel is a changed man; that he is ready to change his ethical dimensions in order to survive. Oscar Isaac, who plays Abel, is also the reason for making this character work. His controlled speech and intense gaze makes us recall the quiet, powerful performances of 70’s Al Pacino. Isaac unravels the delicate changes and the character’s many layers without making it so boring.
Jessica Chastain as hot-headed Anna gives one of the understated performances in her career. Many might feel that Anna’s slush fund as a kind of contrived inclusion to bring the narrative to an end. But, I felt that the slush fund very much attests to Anna’s demeanor. Anna’s background of being a daughter of a mafia family plays a vital role in her character’s decisions. When things are closing in, she isn’t reluctant to take the easy approach. Her easy way is to employ violence and stealing or cheating. Anna immediately acquiring an unlicensed gun and the way she puts the deer out of its misery only intimates us that she would have planned an easy path (“You (Abel) have been walking around this whole time thinking this comes to your hard work, your good luck, your charm”). Of course it is a dramatization to bring out that fund, but nonetheless a compelling one.
The subplot involving Julian and his relationship with Abel is laced with irony, since Abel’s empowering advices only brings bane to Julian. Julian’s suicide in the end may be viewed as stupid as he is only facing minor changes. Julian, an immigrant like Abel Morales sees his employer as a role model. He wants to succeed like him, but most importantly he is eager to create a lasting impression on Abel. Despite his hard work, Julian’s temperament only damages his employer’s reputation. Furthermore, Abel doesn’t seem to care about Julian as he thought, and hence he is driven to suicide. Abel’s reaction to the suicide brings his transformation to a new threshold point.
“A Most Violent Year” (125 minutes) is a purposeful, slow-boil crime thriller about a man struggling to maintain his moral principles in a cutthroat, unprincipled business environment.