Every so often you get a film whose title and tag lines promise a certain type of story and draw you into the theater, only to find out those promises had little to do with the movie itself. A Most Violent Year is just such a film. The trailer emphasized its setting in the New York of 1981, purportedly the worst year for crime in that city’s history. Lots of badass-looking guys walking around in topcoats, hot babes, 70s and 80s cars, references to high-level gangsters … it all spilled out of the trailer. I went to the theater thinking I might be in for an atmospheric mob movie, maybe even a solid “sleeper” of a film, set in a desperate city on the skids.
What I got instead was a riveting film centering around the importance of personal honor and principles. There were only brief flashes of violence, gangsters were only alluded to (except for one quick scene in a “social club”, where shadowy mob types sat around a table not saying much of anything), and the story in no way related specifically to 1981. It could’ve easily happened yesterday.
Abel Morales (played with great intensity by Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna own a heating oil company in Brooklyn. Their business is dog-eat-dog, and Morales has an unquenchable thirst to grow his business by encroaching on his competitors’ territories. Problem is, his trucks are being hijacked at gunpoint on a regular basis. Not only that, the local heating oil business, which has long engaged in questionable practices, is being investigated by an ambitious District Attorney, portrayed in a smooth performance by David Oyelowo, fresh off his triumphant turn as Martin Luther King in Selma. Morales’ company may or may not have violated the law, but he certainly acts like it has, and the zealous DA smells blood in the water.
Anna, played perfectly by Jessica Chastain, is not only her husband’s partner in the business, but also the daughter of an unnamed mob kingpin, whose services are apparently available to make all these problems go away. Morales, however, refuses to stoop to that level, opting instead to risk it all and stay on the high road.
The stakes are very high, and the viewer is reeled into this utterly personal drama by AC Chandor’s outstanding direction and deft use of locations. New York has never looked filthier, and this serves the story well. But the real star is Isaac, whose layered performance captures the dynamic of his complex character, torn between what he knows to be right and what is expedient. He makes the viewer feel his pain as the conflict closes in on him and his options narrow.
Recommendation: Go see it before it leaves. A Most Violent Year is much, much better than what the misleading title and trailer imply.