Review: A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain Oscar Isaac

“I believe in America.” Like the supplicant baker who’s line opens Coppola’s The Godfather, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) a first generation immigrant, has built a good business upon the twin pillars of honesty and opportunity. But when his heating oil company’s trucks become targeted by hijackers, and scrutiny into industry malpractice singles him out unfairly,it threatens to overturn a deal with the potential to expand beyond his dreams. For this cool customer, increasingly it’s hard to be a saint (in the city).

Cold fronts in the grey winter of a convincingly grungy and run-down, graffitti-ed New York in 1981, (the city’s statistically most violent year of the title) gradually chip away the layers of trust and resolution between Abel and his Brooklyn hood heiress wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s one step away from full-on Lady Macbeth mode – she wants him to stay clean, but if he won’t man up, may I point you in the direction of one errant deer she caps without blinking, while her husband, who has just clipped it in his car, psyches himself up with a tyre iron? “You’re not going to like it when I get involved,” she warns him, after he erupts at her. She’s all steely resolution beneath her silken garb, letting David Oyelowo’s probing Assistant D.A know in no uncertain terms that interrupting their children’s party by doorstepping their brutalist Westchester Rand-ian domicle, is “very disrespectful.”

jessica chastain gif

Isaac’s Morales, meanwhile, must screw his driver’s courage to the sticking gear shift, so to speak, having no truck with the Teamsters demands to arm his fleet. He is an anti- Michael Corleone, forever pulling back from that irrevocable step down a dark path, even when menacingly underlit, eyes hooded in flinty “business meetings” with his crooked competitors.

Julian,a jumpy driver, also an immigrant but without Abel’s focussed vision of looking ahead and taking the moral high ground, threatens to derail things further. This period cautionary capitalist fable from director / writer J.C Chandor of mid-level corruption in a wider pool and the attempt to rise above it has echoes of Lumet, Friedkin and Ferrara mixed up in its oily DNA. Especially in a brilliantly staged chase between Abel and a hijacker that progresses from car and tanker through backstreets, tunnel and railyard, on to foot and into and off an el-train. Abel’s camel coat remains spotless, even when he’s wading through the filth – a Dick Tracy amidst hoods, struggling to raise the final downpayment after a nervous banker backs off. That waterfront real estate he needs (with it he can roll fuel loads directly from barges across the globe into his yard) oversees the mirage of a glittering city’s promise across the bay. “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump,” Abel tells Julian, “otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do.”

a most violent year

The way of the gun is never far from business dealings here, but even when one is honest, one must also be ruthless – Abel’s action at the tragic climax recalls his advice to his sales team – stare into the other fellow’s eyes until it is no longer comfortable. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.


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