A Most Violent Year

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I appreciate A Most Violent Year‘s style way more than anything else about the movie. The story is pretty good, the dialogue is terrible at times, and the performances are also pretty great. However, the thing that is greatest about it is its throwback seventies vibe, taking place in 1981 and dealing with morality and the mob. I love mob movies, so I really wanted to love this film. Alas, it’s not as good as it should be, but I still love the way it looks and feels.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a heating oil company in 1980s New York City. Under attack from all sides, the DA (David Oyelowo) and an unknown entity stealing his trucks and hurting his employees and family, Abel tries his hardest not to succumb to mob dealings. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a gangster who used to own the heating oil business, offers considerable temptation to take things in that direction. As things get worse and worse for Abel, he valiantly tries to save his business and family in the least morally objectionable way possible.

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Let me get the problems out of the way before I just go straight for praising the film. The film does a better job at creating a mood than it does in telling a story. Characters often will simply state the points the film is trying to make, and more than does, through the surrounding atmosphere and actions of the characters. For example, at the beginning of the film, the violence against Abel’s truck drivers increases and continues to do so over the course of the film. Everyone’s worried about it, so much so that we will get far too many lines about how vulnerable the drivers feel. We already know this because we see them getting attacked and acting scared. Obviously Abel is under pressure to protect them. The film should have just shown us these things instead of telling them over and over again as well. Jessica Chastain’s entire character, while a fascinating one, also has a significant drawback. Half of her purpose in this movie seems to be telling Abel his family’s in danger. We know. We saw the guy with the gun come in the house, just like they did. We know they’re in danger. She also has to keep reminding us that her husband is a good man, which is an interesting statement.

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Abel’s morality is an interesting proposition. Time and time again throughout the film we see him vehemently oppose mob tactics or involvement in order to save his business or his family. He doesn’t think it will work, for one thing, and he also is morally opposed to it. However, a scene towards the end sheds some light. In it, he tells the DA that he wants to pick the best of all his options, which is not necessarily the same thing as doing the right thing. He doesn’t do the right thing, not totally, but does a weird balancing act between getting what he wants and doing the right thing. Earlier in the film he sends his drivers out without guns, because he doesn’t want to get into trouble with the law and ruin his business that way. He doesn’t want an escalation of the violence, which I suppose is the right thing, but his employees are also getting hurt just because he doesn’t want to loose money, basically. Though the characters in the film keep asserting Abel Morales is a good man, I’m thinking that’s only compared to some.

The performances in the film are fantastic, anchored by the ever amazing Oscar Isaac. This guy never fails to impress me. Here, he channels Al Pacino in The Godfather, and though that sounds like an impossible task, he succeeds incredibly well. He radiates a quiet fury, making you think he really could be a gangster very easily, but at the same seems to make all of his decisions in a cold and calculating way. Jessica Chastain turns in another incredible performance, but I wish her character was given more to do than make pronouncements about her husband. She is, but not nearly enough. They are partners in crime (or industry standard business practices, however you want to look at it), which is interesting to see. She wants to pull him in the mob direction because she thinks his way is ineffective, but this doesn’t turn out to be much more than a threat. So while Chastain does a good job making her appear threatening, I wish the character actually was as fiery as she plays her. In the end, she’s more bark than bite. There are many great supporting performances rounding out the cast, from Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer, David Oyelowo (who isn’t in the film as much as the trailer would suggest), and Elyes Gabel as an employee of Abel’s.

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The real star here though is atmosphere of the film. Oscar Isaac’s performance is not the only thing here influenced by The Godfather; the lighting and cinematography undeniably is as well. The characters are often awash in darkness, but still strongly illuminated. This creates a very ominous feeling for the film, as well as outlining its themes of human goodness in the face of a harsh environment. Overall, the film creates a terrific atmosphere, evoking slow paced 1970s thrillers like The Conversation or All the President’s Men.

While I liked A Most Violent Year quite a bit, it wasn’t the film I was hoping it would be. It needed to go a bit deeper into the characters’ motivations (why is Abel so bent on doing the right thing when no one else is?) and get rid of a lot of obvious dialogue in order to be a great film, but what we have is still a triumph of atmospheric film making. Oscar Isaac turns in a great performance, backed up by Jessica Chastain and a stellar supporting cast. I wished it could have been a bit better, but all around A Most Violent Year is well worth the watch for anyone wondering why they don’t make ’em like they used to.

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“You must take the path that is most right.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Matt Zoller Seitz review
The New York Times review
The New Yorker review

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2 responses to “A Most Violent Year

  1. Great review Melissa! I’d still see this as I like the leading actors and Chandor’s Margin Call impressed me. Interesting that you said “the real star here though is atmosphere of the film” I can see how that’d make this very intriguing. I just hope it’s not too violent I read somewhere it’s more of a slow-burn thriller that’s not simply about ‘people getting whacked.’ That makes me want to see it even more!

    • I saw it a while ago now but I don’t remember it being very violent at all. There’s a chase scene that might have some violence but I don’t remember there being large amounts. It really is comparable to The Godfather in terms of tone, even if its not as good as that film (but not much is, let’s face it). It’s definitely worth a look, especially for Oscar Isaac who does a really great job.

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