A Most Violent Year

An insidious and effective thriller set in 1981, New York City's most crime-ridden year.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 01, 2015


An honest man follows his ambitions, but finds trouble at every turn. We’ve seen this story done before and done well; however, films as gloomy and gripping as A Most Violent Year don’t come around that often. It’s not necessarily the chaos and corruption the movie tells of that gets under your skin, though there’s plenty of that. What makes this tense, moody thriller so insidious and effective is the way it states the costs and consequences without offering an alternative. Adapt or perish, it says. That’s just life, it tells us.

When we first meet that well-intentioned businessman, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), he’s running — and doesn’t stop throughout the film. Yes, he’s frequently standing still, but he’s never really relaxed or comfortable. He’s continually chasing the next step in his carefully controlled climb from poor immigrant to heating oil mogul, and the movie loves nothing more than to watch his struggle.

Understanding why Morales itches to keep moving is simple, despite everything — his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), his fancy home and his growing oil company — seeming the picture of happiness. Thugs keep hijacking his trucks, threatening his staff and prowling around his house. The assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has targeted him in an investigation into the industry. If a property deal crucial to expanding his empire falls through, he could lose everything.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor previously made Margin Call and All Is Lost, which gives an indication of the uneasiness on display. Yet again, his characters walk the fine line between success and failure, trapped in a horror story about survival in capitalist times. The American Dream is mentioned, and that’s certainly what the movie contemplates, though it’s rarely so blunt about it. Instead, it is telling that the story is set in New York in 1981 — reportedly the city’s most crime-ridden year on record, hence the title. That Selma cinematographer Bradford Young chooses to make everything from subway cars to suburban homes look shadowy and inescapable is just as revealing.

Chandor has always benefited from clever casting, but in A Most Violent Year he has hit the jackpot. Isaac is exceptional as someone trying not to drown — metaphorically, not literally, here — in stormy waters. Everyone who rightfully loved him in Balibo, Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis will only do so all over again. Morales is the type of conflicted role only he could’ve done justice to.

He’s constantly composing himself for the next drama — whether discussing tactics with his attorney (Albert Brooks), or begrudgingly asking a competitor (Alessandro Nivola) for help. And then there’s his battle with Anna, as formidably played as the gangster’s daughter she is by the equally outstanding Chastain. If ever there was a depiction of marriage to test the “behind every great man, there’s a great woman” adage, it’s this one (matching stylish period outfits included).

It may take time getting there, building patiently and unnervingly, but when A Most Violent Year ends, it’s like the slap in the face you knew was coming yet couldn’t duck to avoid. Another famous saying springs to mind: be careful what you wish for. Viewers wanting a complex and compelling film needn’t fear, but anyone wanting life to be full of unambiguously happy endings just might.


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