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Film Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)
December 18, 2015
The year 1981, which is the setting of A Most Violent Year, was one of the most dangerous times in the history of New York City as violence and crime reached an all-time high. Upright businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) faces pressure from all sides when his fuel company is faced with multiple truck robberies and an ill-timed federal investigation. Struggling to gather the capital to buy a valuable property and continue expanding his company, Abel runs the risk of losing everything. The young Morales family also is affected by the faceless greed and corruption surrounding them and Abel’s beautiful but tough wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), pushes him to do whatever it takes to protect everything they have built. As Anna and their wily lawyer (Albert Brooks) pressure him to bend the rules in order to survive, Abel holds out for as long as he can to stay on the right path until fewer and fewer options are available.
Fellow Julliard-alums Isaac and Chastain give searing performances as the super-photogenic, power couple fighting between doing the right thing or the smart thing in their pursuit of the American Dream. Even though Anna and Abel have some very strong disagreements—complicated by an obliquely mentioned mob-related past on Anna's side—they are also equals who love each other. A parallel story of Hispanic, truck-driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) acts as foil to Abel’s achievements and character, allowing the multi-talented Isaac to act in Spanish as well when he confronts his employee.
Although not nearly as violent as the film’s title may imply, multiple handguns are picked up and passed along by the characters, building up the tension of A Most Violent Year until shots are finally fired in a couple of nerve-wracking scenes. As his misfortunes grow, Abel receives many apologies, ultimately meaningless, from the various men who add to his problems. And it is mostly a film about men—rich and poor, good and bad, strong and weak—all mired in the city’s decline. Director J.C. Chandor crafts a grim tale of corruption, a moody and artfully lit drama that allows viewers to watch Abel sink slowly into the darkness of his world and become more ruthless over time, but ends on a surprising note. A Most Violent Year is a meditative character study, stirring family drama, and excellent crime thriller all in one.