Directed by J.C. Chandor.
2014. Rated R, 125 minutes.
Catalina Sandino Moreno
It's the 1980s in New York and Abel Morales (Isaac) is the owner of an oil heating company. It's one of the more successful ones in the city. He's planning on expanding operations and has just made the first payment on a piece of land to accommodate this. However, his company has a couple of really big issues. First, someone has been hijacking his trucks, costing him tons of money in product. Second, the police are investigating it to see if any of his somewhat shady business dealings are actually illegal. By all outward appearances, he seems to be an honest guy. Then again, that down payment was made with a suitcase full of cash. Hmmm. Abel trying to figure out who is ripping him off while simultaneously keeping the law off his back ensues.
I rarely address the title of a film in my reviews. In this case, I feel like I have to because, as usual, I went into this movie fairly blind. I'd heard it was a crime drama and that plenty of people love it, but hadn't read any reviews of it. Armed with so little information, I made an assumption based on the name of the film. It's called A Most Violent Year. Based on that, I don't think it's unreasonable that I expected it to be more, oh I dunno, violent. Instead, this is a contemplative character study. That might be a deal-breaker for some viewers who find themselves in a situation similar to mine. They won't be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it for what it is, just upset over what it isn't. I adjusted, I think, and was rewarded handsomely for it.
Helping me to adjust is a wonderful performance by Oscar Isaac. He's been popping up everywhere over the last few years and has rapidly become an actor I look forward to seeing. He again proves why. His Abel is an honest man in a dishonest world. He's not so naive as to believe that everyone else shares his passion for doing things in an upright manner, but he does believe in the honesty of those he's chosen to trust. When one of them fails at being totally truthful, as human beings tend to do, he is genuinely flabbergasted. His core is shaken. We get the sense that not only is he disappointed in the person who let him down, but also in his own judgment. It all shows in Isaac's face. The events happening tell us that the world is beating him down. Everything about him shows us this much more clearly.
It's a good thing Isaac is engaging because the story unfolds methodically, which is to say very slowly. However, it does so in a way that gradually pulls us in rather than repelling us with with boredom. Early on, we're kind of intrigued by the goings on. By the middle of the film we're fully invested in Abel's plight. We yearn for him to straighten out both issues surrounding him and his family. That family is represented fiercely by his wife and accountant Anna (Chastain). Jessica Chastain fully inhabits the role of a woman who is willing to let her man be out front even as she lays much of the groundwork for their success. She's no damsel in distress, nor helpless housewife. She's every bit as capable as her husband, but purposely playing second fiddle.
In addition to a modicum of money, power, and respect, our lead couple also have a pair of children. Here is where the movie pulls up a bit lame. We know they exist and are put in danger at least twice. Unfortunately, we still don't feel for them as much as we should. The problem is they are used much more as props than actual characters. Occasionally, they're part of the scenery and the conversation, but often times nowhere to be seen or heard. Their relationship with their father is something we're told about, but not really shown. I get that the movie is not about them, but if they're to be included then they should be given enough attention to make them relevant to the audience.
One area that is nicely developed is the subplot involving Julian, a driver for the company. He is the one we see at the beginning having his truck taken at gunpoint. How this affects him and the movie as a whole is profound and impactful. Elyes Gabel plays the role in frantic fashion, injecting much needed energy whenever he appears. In an otherwise soft-spoken film, he is the periodic clanging we can't forget about. It's a strong portrayal. More importantly, it works well within the grand scheme of things.
Misleading title aside, A Most Violent Year is an intriguing crime drama and an even more intriguing examination of characters. Though there are no actual mobsters present, it plays very much like a gangster movie. Abel is trying to rise above the muck all around him similar to a guy trying to get out of a life of crime. To paraphrase the great Michael Corleone, he's trying to get out, but they keep pulling him back in. Isaac makes it a compelling watch. The patient storytelling makes it a slow burn, or a leisurely stroll that we don't realize has taken us so far until we get there.