Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Director: J. C. Chandor
Writer: J. C. Chandor
In A Most Violent Year we are presented with a moral tale about a man who follows a path of truth and honour in the face of violence and corruption in his pursuit of the American Dream. It is a perilous path that he chooses as outside forces beyond his control threaten to bring him down. However, no matter how desperate his situation becomes, he refuses to abandon his principles and stray from his path. He carries on regardless, all the while placing his trust in the belief that whatever choices he must make along the way there is always one choice that is “most right”. He trusts that all will be well so long as he follows his moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing. This proves to be very difficult and dangerous as he stands to lose everything that he has worked for.
The film is set in the backdrop of New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who runs a successful oil business, is in the process of making the biggest deal of his career when a series of his lorries are commandeered by armed men as they make their deliveries. Abel is an ambitious, strongly principled man who prides himself on having built a business from honesty, hard work and integrity. Even after one of his drivers is beaten to a pulp during one of the hijackings, Abel refuses to allow his employees to carry weapons. These incidents indicate that someone has targeted Abel and his company and that he must try to find and stop them. However things become worse for Abel when the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) informs Abel that a case is being built against him, accusing him of corruption and embezzlement. This takes a toll on Abel’s business as none of his partners will participate in this deal anymore.
The troubles that Abel faces threaten not only his business, but also his family. When Abel catches a man trying to break into his house in the middle of the night, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) demands to know what is happening. Abel tries to assure her that everything is under control, only for Anna to later find their daughter playing with the intruder’s gun. Abel is left with no option but to tell his wife the truth. Chastain plays a Lady Macbeth type of character as she pushes her husband to resort to dishonest methods. She is just as ambitious as her husband but does not share his sense of morality. She has no qualms about keeping her family safe through immoral means, a view that often leads to clashes between her and Abel.
Isaacs, who appears to be channelling 1970’s Al Pacino in his performance, plays Abel with a calm and collected demeanour coupled with an underlying sense of panic. This is a man who is trying his utmost to keep everything under control, but finds himself struggling to cope as more of these problems keep slipping through his fingers. He is adamant that this business deal must happen and that it cannot wait until his legal troubles are over, and so he finds himself scrambling around trying to borrow the money that he needs. On top of that he struggles to keep his situation with the district attorney and the police under control, especially when they show up in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party with a search warrant for his house. His legal troubles become even worse when one of his lorry drivers is involved in a gun-related incident. He attempts to face his troubles with all the dignity he can muster, but he exhibits a clear sense of desperation beneath it all. As his difficulties get worse and worse, one wonders how long it will take before he finally snaps.
Despite the compelling struggle of Abel Morales and his ideological clashes with his wife and his associates, I found A Most Violent Year to be a somewhat underwhelming film mostly due to its lack of payoff. When all is said and done, the film never really builds up to anything and never really finds a resolution. I’m not convinced that Abel as a character has learned anything by the end, and so I find myself wondering what it was all for. The inaction that Abel displays may be necessary as a character motif, but in the end it ultimately builds up to something of an anti-climax. It certainly isn’t by any means a bad film; in fact I believe it to be a worthy addition to J. C. Chandor’s filmography. But ultimately I did not find it to be particularly effective or memorable.