1981 was one of the most violent years in New York’s history. In a city with the history of New York, that is saying something. A Most Violent Year brings you into that city. It depicts a dark, dank place where violence and corruption are such a normal part of day-to-day life, that they are as common to the people involved as they would be shocking to you or me.
Into this world comes Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the one straight man in town, who is an immigrant working in the heating oil industry and living the American Dream in that most classic of ways. Unfortunately, this world doesn’t like that and is railing against him. Someone is hijacking his trucks, losing him thousands of dollars and District Attorney Lawrence, (David Oyelowo) is desperate to prove he is not as straight as he seems. Accusations that he believes are founded, because Abel’s wife, Anna, (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a gangster. All of this comes together to cause problems for Abel, who is in the process of trying to purchase new land, that would allow him to grow his company to even bigger heights.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to know that this isn’t a light and jolly film. This isn’t the New York that we all know now, but a darker, murkier world where the sun never seems to shine. Gangsters reign supreme and the police know to choose their battles. It’s a New York that you don’t like, but you can’t help but be fascinated by. However, one of the films greatest strength is that it never allows this to descend into pastiche. While gangsters exist, they don’t run around in hats shooting each other in the street, this darkness is realer than that and it makes the film feel a lot more true to life.
That reality is cemented by several great performances. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this year is slowly turning into the year of Isaac. Here he plays a man who is struggling to get his feelings across. One scene sees him enter a restaurant full of his fellow oil barons, all of whom are discussing the current situation. In other films, this might have led to an explosive speech, eloquent and piercing. In Isaac’s hands it never comes close to that. The only words he can find are ‘stop’. It turns what could have been a very contrived scene, into something that again feels real. That contained energy inside Isaac, as he wants the world to embrace his vision, but is stuck in a battle against a city that chews up and spits people like him out for breakfast, gives his entire character a nervous edge, that makes the few moments he explodes, all the more impactful.
Isaac’s not alone though and the supporting cast pull their weight as well. Chastain holds her weight as the femme fatale wife. In some ways she does play the stereotype, but she gives it an even more dangerous edge, which her husband lacks. There is a scene in the film when things are going wrong and she hits him with the line, ‘if you don’t do something, I will’. What could have been very throw away, becomes a legitimate threat. You believe this is a women who could take care of herself.
A lot of people will go and see A Most Violent Year hoping to see a film live up to its title and will leave disappointed. This is a film about a man trying not to be violent, in a city that is desperate for him to be so and it could have so easily have been very dull. People discussing oil prices and the impact of lost shipments shouldn’t grip you like this, but it does It also means when there actually is some action, with one particular chase coming to mind, you find yourself on the edge of your seat, willing the participants on. It all of this comes together in a film that may not be full of rainbows and joy, but will definitely thrill anyone willing to give it a chance.