A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.
Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.
But although touchstones like that crop up constantly throughout A Most Violent Year — recalling The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The French Connection — the film isn’t a gangster movie after all. In dealing with the corruption and violence of NYC from a decidedly contemporary angle, it’s quite the opposite: a sort of anti-gangster film. Abel isn’t Henry Hill, bent on becoming a wise guy until he’s forced to be a schmuck; he’s not Michael Corrleone, bent on remaining a schmuck until he can no longer resist the pull of wiseguydom. And A Most Violent Year inverts the “there’s more to protagonist than meets the eye” mobster movie trope, too. When done well we get A History of Violence, and when done poorly we get The Drop — but in both cases (and in almost every other case) the “more than meets the eye” is equal to some kind of suppressed tendency for violence.
That’s not Abel Morales. You could certainly say that there’s more to him than he lets on, but that never amounts to an easy “oh, he’s actually a badass mafioso who resorts to violence if provoked”. He spots and follows one of the men hijacking his trucks, catches him, places a gun to his head…and then lets the man walk away. So in moments like these it’s fairly easy to convince ourselves that Abel isn’t a gangster at all. He’s just a determined and strongwilled worker, forced to the brink of violence in order to protect his business and his family.
In other moments, though, it’s not so easy. Abel and his wife (who’s part floozy, part Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, part Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, and more than partly the archetypal gangster wife) speak about the importance of respect in much the same way that your average mafia don might speak about respect. They attend a dinner with other heads of competing oil companies, most of whom actually are corrupt gangsters. They even have a mob lawyer to serve as a close advisor to their family, a kind of Saul Goodman who actually thinks the federal suit is good news because it means the company is big enough to make someone take notice.
Visually, too, director J.C. Chandor seems completely rooted in New York gang film. Though he’s received a few favorable comparisons to Sidney Lumet, many of the wide-angle shots in A Most Violent Year more readily recall James Gray’s early NYC gangster films (especially Little Odessa):
So A Most Violent Year occupies a unique space amongst all of the aforementioned NYC mob movies (which, when you really get into it, is actually a colossal subgenre); it seems at home with them, thematically and visually, while simultaneously defying them. Driven by strong performances, strong writing, and strong influence that manages to be refreshingly unpretentious, A Most Violent Year is a highly recommended take on corruption and violence in New York City.