A Most Violent Year is one of those movies where, with stronger marketing, it could have gained traction during the awards season, perhaps not winning much but certainly getting more than just one Golden Globe nomination (a Supporting Actress nod for Jessica Chastain).
Director JC Chandor impressed many with his look at the start of the financial crash in Margin Call, and also with his almost dialogue-free Robert Redford alone-at-sea movie, All Is Lost. In many respects A Most Violent Year is a more tradition movie than either of those films, but it’s still extremely stylish and accomplished.
The movie is set in 1981, with the title coming from the fact that statistically that was one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, an immigrant trying to make his way in a city where he never quite fits. He and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are in the domestic heating oil delivery business, which may not sound that exciting but which is actually a cutthroat and surprisingly dangerous trade.
Anna and Abel are doing a deal to buy a new loading dock. They’ve put down the deposit to purchase it but only have 30 days to pay the rest, something made more difficult due to the fact David Oyelowo’s district attorney is looking into the surprisingly murky world of heating oil and he has his eye of the Morales. Despite that Abel wants to keep within the bounds of the law – but only just as he isn’t against a bit of strong-arm manipulation – although in true Godfather fashion, as the movie goes on and with all those around him resorting to serious criminality to try and bring his growing business to the ground, this immigrant done good is increasingly faced with whether he will compromise his American dream ideals to get what he wants.
That’s particularly true as his wife is the daughter of a mobster, and doesn’t seem certain Abel’s way of doing this is going to work.
Despite the title, this is not a gruesome film full of bullets and blood. Instead the name is more about the world Abel is attempting to negotiate, which seems set up in a way where the only way to succeed is to get down into the dirt and be as scummy as everyone else. In fact in this respect it’s not too far from Margin Call, as that was also about people whose morality was tested by a world where doing the ‘wrong’ thing was part of the culture and seemed the only way to succeed.
Admittedly there are times when it becomes so impressed with itself that it slows down to a crawl and seems determined to test the audience’s patience, but even here the great performances from Chastain and Isaac shine through, ensuring you’re kept pulled in by this well made and sometimes quite tense drama.
Overall Verdict: Beautifully drawn and stylish with great performances from the leads, A Most Violent Year might disappoint those thinking the title means it will serve up a buffet of blood, but it certainly shows the Heating Oil business is more interesting and cutthroat than you might imagine.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac