Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

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A businessman struggles to keep his business afloat as he endures investigation by the police and a wave of violence that threatens his livelihood.

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JC Chandon, 2014

It’s not easy to be an honest man in the fuel supply industry, apparently. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has worked his way up from being a driver to owning his own business and a shiny new home, but in 1981, the most violent year in New York’s history, Abel’s business comes under attack. He struggles to stay profitable while keeping his morals intact, struggling to gather the money to buy a new storage facility when a series of attacks on his drivers make his job much more difficult. To make matters worse, Abel’s company is under investigation by district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), who is conflicted over how to handle Abel’s less savoury business decisions in an economic landscape that favours corruption. Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) work together to hide their shadier dealings, while also disagreeing on some of the finer points. Meanwhile, driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) struggles with trauma after being attacked.

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A Most Violent Year is not at all the movie I expected it to be when I started watching. With a title like that, I thought I was in for a violent crime drama, which is a pretty far cry from what this intense little character study really is. The truth is, not much happens in A Most Violent Year, and most of the more action-packed scenes don’t even feature Abel Morales. It’s mostly just a movie about a dude trying to keep a handle on things as his life spins out of control. Oscar Isaac is all barely repressed frustration in this movie, while Jessica Chastain is all sound and fury. The two of them play so well off each other it’s like they’re conducting a symphony. Their scenes together are by far the most compelling in the film – it’s only with his wife that Abel is able to be himself and let go of the carefully constructed façade that he uses for the rest of the world. The tenderness, vulnerability, and anger that they unleash upon each other are excellent. Of course, Oscar Isaac knows just when to let the façade crack during his other scenes, giving us just enough to know how tightly Abel is holding on to control over himself and his American dream. Abel is 100% done with everyone else’s shit, and it’s marvellous.

I just spent such a long time in this in anticipation of something happening that by the time it was over I felt like I’d missed most of the film waiting for the action. In spite of the great acting on display, it’s still a film that feels slight; there’s a build of tension that makes the conclusion feel wholly unsatisfactory, even if it is more realistic that way. There are no twists, no surprises. It’s not quite an investigation of what was actually happening in this most violent year in New York’s history, given its very tight focus on the Morales family. It’s a very small story about an immigrant who wants to prove himself by transporting fuel, and it’s one that seems like it didn’t ultimately know what it wanted to say about him. Morally, Abel Morales is an interesting character; he definitely deals in underhanded tactics, but his own moral code is very carefully delineated, even if we don’t get to see all of it. The film is very nicely shot, too; the colour scheme is period-appropriate, faded and washed out and pretty. It definitely shows potential, but it’s ultimately not a satisfying enough story to be memorable.

A Most Violent Year on IMDb

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