The year is 1981. New York is as violent as it’s ever been before. At least, that’s what we’re told.
You want to carve out a name for yourself, but have to contend with the mob, gangsters, the district attorney, and rampant corruption. In spite of the violent world you live in, is it possible to avoid corrupting yourself? Can you stay out of the gangster game or do you need to get your hands dirty in order to get ahead? Let’s dig into A Most Violent Year.
The film begins in New York City, 1981. We start with our main character, Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, on a jog in Queens. We hear through radio chatter that three police officers have recently been treated for gunshot wounds.
A Standard Heating Oil truck makes its way through a toll. The driver, Julian, played by Elyes Gabel, is just working his daily route when he’s attacked and ambushed by two men in a car in front of his truck. Julian is thrown from the truck and can only watch as the robbers make off with it. Don’t you hate when that happens?
Abel brings a briefcase of money to his lawyer, Andrew Walsh, played by Albert Brooks, and the two head in for their meeting with a group of Hasidic Jews. The leader, Josef, played by Jerry Adler, wonders why Abel would even want the land he’s proposing to buy, since the site doesn’t contain any oil. Abel just likes to own what he plans to use. He has 30 days to close the transaction. If not, the land will be sold to one of Abel’s competitors.
Later, Abel heads to the hospital to visit Julian and we’re also introduced to Abel’s wife, Anna, played by Jessica Chastain. In the hallway, Anna learns that her husband did indeed get the contract signed, but they still need the money from the loan. Anna offers to talk to her brother, but Abel doesn’t want anyone else involved. She’s concerned about the growing number of attacks. After all, it’s not fair that Julian was attacked just for doing his job.
So Abel heads to a parking lot where the truck has been towed. The on-site cop isn’t much help. In fact, his shift is just about up. He does ask Abel why someone would steal the truck, and Abel tells him that the robbers wanted the $6,000 worth of fuel in the tank.
Andrew and Abel meet with the Assistant District Attorney, Mr. Lawrence, played by David Oyelowo. They want help on the truck robberies, but Lawrence reminds them that this is a police issue. It’s also no more important than the other rampant number of crimes being committed in the city. However, as Abel points out, for two years his drivers are at risk. His company, he says, never took from anyone else. Lawrence breaks it to the two that their company is being investigated for possible corruption. The office will bring a case against them next week. Well, at least he gave them advanced notice.
Back at the Standard Heating Oil Office, Abel tells Anna that they’re going to be charged soon. He wants to know where they may be exposed, but Anna reminds him that the company follows the standard industry practices. Right now, she needs to know what’s going on, but Abel doesn’t know all of the details yet.
After Anna, Abel, and their daughters settle into their new home, they receive an unwelcome visit that night. The dog’s growling gets Abel’s attention, so he grabs a baseball bat and heads outside. He heads out and sees nothing, but someone then strikes him on the head and flees. Abel runs after him, but doesn’t get too far through the snow before the attacker is able to escape. Anna stitches up her husband’s feet- never go running barefoot in the show- while Abel assures her that their attacker was just some random guy that won’t be back.
Next day, Abel trains three new sales recruits in the Standard Heating Oil office and gives them some specific tips on how to deal with clients: take a good, long look at the cloth and then say you want to run the numbers. After that, if the client offers you something to drink, take the fancier option- tea over coffee. You never want to give the illusion that you’re cheap. Make sure you stare the client right in the eye. The recruit can only keep the job if they close. Abel wants the company to grow, so by staring the buyer in the eye, the recruit telegraphs that they are telling the truth. You have to believe you’re better than the competition.
Abel drives Julian home from the hospital. Julian isn’t ready to be behind the wheel again and instead asks if he can do sales, but Abel tells him that he’s not ready for that move yet.
Anna heads home and finds one of her daughters, Catherine, playing with a gun that she and the other girls found in the yard. She takes the loaded gun to the office and shows it to Abel, who promises to take care of it. Abel promises to take care of it. Anna doesn’t know what that means, but she does know this: he’s not going to be happy if she has to get involved.
Andrew has more bad news: the D.A.’s office has a 14-count indictment against Standard Heating Oil, three of which are very serious. They need to set up a dinner with the bank. Also, Anna needs to go over the books.
Abel goes to meet with union head Bill, who tells Abel that this situation can’t continue with the guys being attacked. They’re feeling pressure on all sides. Andrew suggests arming the drivers with handguns and can even have permits ready by Friday…not legitimate permits, though. Abel is against this idea because if even one shot is fired by one of his drivers, he’ll be implicated for it.
So the three meet with two bank owners and inform them that the D.A. is singling them out. Abel is interested in running a clean business without any problems. When asked about why he wants the land he’s looking to buy, he explains that he wants the quick river access. That and there’s a lot of room for storage capacity. Sure, the leap may be scary, but even then, you still jump. Abel wants to control his fate instead of just remaining in the same spot. The bank owners are on board.
So after that bit of happy news, let’s get into something a bit dramatic. Abel and Anna discuss the meeting on the way home, but a deer runs into the path of the car. The two get out and see the deer taking its last breaths. Anna tells Abel to put the deer out of its misery. He goes to get a tire iron, but can’t bring himself to finish off the deer, so Anna does it herself with her gun. See, this is what happens when Jessica Chastain gets involved.
At home, Abel is livid that Anna has a gun, but she doesn’t back down from using it. After all, she wasn’t going to sit around and let her family be put in danger. True as that may be, she still doesn’t have a permit and could get in trouble if she’s caught. For telling her that whores use guns, Anna slaps him. Abel then says that this gun is a trap that she just can’t see. All right. If Anna can’t use the gun, Abel needs to protect his family.
Next day, Anna and Abel are throwing a birthday party for one of their daughters. The police arrive right outside, along with Lawrence, even though none of them received an invitation. They’ve come to search the premises, but Lawrence gives Abel and Anna five minutes to clear out the party. They do so, but also use this as a chance to move some file boxes underneath their deck. Anna just doesn’t want the officials to go through them before she has a chance.
As the officer search the premises, Anna tells Lawrence that he’s not going to find anything. Abel is an honorable man. She then gives Lawrence a warning- treat Abel with respect or the two will make it their mission to ruin him.
Strong threats from a strong woman.
A Most Violent Year is a very intricate type of film. This isn’t a film just about one man trying to avoid the gangster world. There are a lot of different elements at play in this movie: the influence of power, crafting out your destiny, corruption, competition, and whether the ends justify the means. Much like The Drop, this is a very slow-paced film that takes its time with its storytelling.
Director and writer J.C. Chandor does a good job at establishing what type of New York this is just from the film’s onset. It’s a very bleak looking movie. Subway cars are tagged with graffiti, there’s little light, and the violence is rampant. Well, sort of. For a film called A Most Violent Year, the title itself is quite deceptive. There’s very little violence and not that many deaths. I’m also pretty sure that this film takes place over the span of a month as opposed to a full year. In fact, we’re told at one point that the previous year had a high number of murders, but little indicates that this year follows that pattern. However, it is the constant threat of violence that always looms in the background.
The mob is at constant competition for dominance in this environment. The players aren’t above using violence to gain control. This is a war and they understand that it’s necessary to get your hands dirty. But not Abel. He has to contend with forces on all sides: the mob, his gangster wife, the District Attorney, union workers, and his own philosophy. Despite the dangers that his drivers endure, Abel won’t allow himself to cross the line and enter the realm of violence. Otherwise, not only would he become a part of the problem, he would symbolize what he hates about the business.
Abel is not a gangster. He’s a businessman with a strict code. He plays by the rules. Sure, he recognizes the violence, but he still chooses to work within the system and confines of the law. That doesn’t mean he’s an overall good or straight arrow sort of guy, though. He’ll use tactics necessary to get clients to switch over to his company, if necessary. One of the best scenes that illustrates this, and one of the better scenes of the film in general, is when he describes to his new recruits the importance of believing you’re better than the competition. Never pick the cheapest option because it gives the illusion that you yourself are cheap. As he tells them, you’ll never do anything harder than stare someone in the eye and tell them the truth.
When it comes down to it, this film is about Abel getting a loan for a plot of land. However, the movie goes deeper and explores how he wants to make an honest name for himself and pursue his destiny. To do this, Abel’s business needs to be as open and legitimate as possible. That’s one constant about Abel throughout the film. He’s not a fan of violence, as we see when he doesn’t want to arm his drivers. And he gets very upset when he sees that Anna has her own gun and is willing to commit violence if it means protecting her family.
There’s a real, quiet intensity to Oscar Isaac’s performance. He’s fully aware of the violence around him, but refuses to add to that, even if means people who work for him will get hurt. Abel is on a quest to own something for himself and further his business. But more than that, he’s a man with integrity and refuses to waiver in the face of threats from competitors. He won’t allow himself to become part of the corrupt game that plagues the business.
It’s as if he wants to retain as spotless of a record as possible. Every move Abel makes is calculated and he’s always careful to stay one step ahead of not just the district attorney’s office, but his competition as well. For Abel, this is about more than destiny- it’s also about honor. Sure, all of his tactics may not be good, but compared to his competition, he’s a good man. The ends justify the means and if he manages to beat out his rivals, it will be all for nothing if he had to get blood on his hands to do so.
Luckily, he has a wife who is willing to do the dirty work if he won’t. Anna is the perfect counterbalance for Abel’s passive attitude toward violence and Jessica Chastain is great in the role. Like Isaac, there’s a quiet intensity to Chastain’s performance, but a lot of that has to do with what we don’t see Anna do. Anna comes from a gangster family. She offers to get her father involved to help out Abel, who will have nothing to do with that.
She shoots a deer because her husband didn’t have the stones to finish it off and she even threatened an Assistant District Attorney! You don’t get to just walk away after making such a threat to a public official, but Anna does because she will do whatever is necessary to protect herself and her family. The fact that she warned Abel that he wouldn’t be happy if she got involved shows that she has a real dark side. She doesn’t care about having to commit crimes because she knows how the gangster game is played.
Despite Anna’s willingness to use violence, however, we do see shades of a woman who is concerned about the well-being of her children. Anna is tough, but she does have a heart. As much as this film is mostly about Oscar Isaac’s performance, I very much enjoyed the interactions between him and Jessica Chastain and would have loved more.
A Most Violent Year isn’t going to be as fast-paced as people would like it to be. I found the film to be fantastic from start to finish. It’s a nice throwback to films like The Godfather and Oscar Isaac’s performance as a man striving to stick to his code to mark his destiny was an enjoyable watch. Again, like The Drop, this film is like watching a lit fuse head toward several sticks of dynamite. You’re always waiting for the explosion to happen. The only unfortunate thing about the film is the title itself, as there’s not a ton of violence here at all, but just the threat of violence. That, however, does not detract from what an amazing film this is.
And when Jessica Chastain says that you won’t like it when she gets involved, believe her.