Published on April 1st, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
A Most Violent Year
New York City was a scary place in 1981. A Most Violent Year uses that as the gritty backdrop for a minor family crime saga.
Back when my wife was my girlfriend, I went on a trip with her and her family to New York City. We had taken the train from Montreal, getting off at Penn Station. Being much less travelled back then as well as unfamiliar with the city, I stepped out into the blaring, neon-lit Manhattan night. I gripped my suitcase tightly, anxiety rising as my eyes darted from person to person, each of them a potential mugger or murderer. My wife and her family leisurely strolled to where we could hail a taxi, casually looking up at the buildings, taking it all in without a care in the world, which only served to increase my angst. I was very much like Homer Simpson in that Simpsons episode where he goes to New York, fearing the pimps and the chuds that come out after dark.
I felt better once we had dropped my bag off at the hotel and I had seen what the city felt like in person, but my wife still makes fun of me today. What I’ve tried to explain (that probably comes off sounding like defensive excuses) is that growing up in the 70s and 80s, New York had a very distinct personality in the media I consumed. Muggers in Spider-man comics. The Warriors coming out to play. Taxi Driver. The very island of Manhattan being written off like Australia in Escape from New York. It’s no wonder I was scared shitless.
A Most Violent Year opens with my favourite Marvin Gaye song, ‘Inner City Blues,’ setting the tone for its gritty time and place — New York in 1981. This was before NYC had been gentrified (a subject that is a can of worms in and of itself), and is often cited as the most violent year in the city’s history. Street violence and gang and mob activity had reached a zenith; to give you an idea, there were over 2100 murders that year (compared to around 650 in 2013).
Truthfully, the movie doesn’t really delve into life in New York per se, but the state of things provides the sobering backdrop for the film. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales — husband, father, and owner of an up-and-coming oil and gas business. He has just made a deal that will buy a very important piece of land that will catapult him to the great heights of success he dreams of. But matters are complicated when his trucks start to get hijacked, his employees attacked and beaten — someone is trying to push him out of the business. Add to that, that with widespread corruption in his industry, he has come to the attention of an ambitious Assistant District Attorney. It comes down to a race against time as he tries to outwit his enemies and finalize the land deal that could solidify his empire.
Director JC Chandor, who also made All is Lost and Margin Call, has crafted a refined and often restrained film. Isaac starts out channeling a young Pacino, but instead of blossoming into a cold-hearted Godfather that would kill his own brother, the movie focuses on Abel’s attempt to be as non-violent and legitimate as possible.
One reviewer said that they kept waiting for Isaac to have that Pacino or DeNiro break out moment, and they were disappointed when it never came. They’ve missed the point of the character. Abel isn’t Michael Corleone or Tony Montana; he’s a guy trying to hold his life (and the movie itself) together, pulling with all his might on invisible ropes and chains that tie together the edges of his reality. He’s too smart to explode into violence for the sake of a multiplex viewer that demands gangster chainsaw deaths. I mean, those are fun in the right movie, but sometimes the threat of violence hanging overheard is so much more effective than brutality itself.
Further to this, the film itself is a brilliant metaphor for the man. Like Abel, It Was a Most Violent Year doesn’t descend cheaply into violence and dramatics. It’s more Sidney Lumet than Scarface. In fact, Isaac is fucking brilliant here — you can see the very tension in his eyes, in the way he measures up people and situations, in the way he tries to keep people calm and make the right decisions, even when they lead him down the very paths he’s trying to avoid. Unless he needs to make a point, melodrama is bad for business and Abel knows this. The movie knows it too.
But that’s not to say there’s no violence or excitement in the movie — there’s plenty of carnage and a great deal of simmering, exhilarating tension. But it’s there organically, as part of the story that makes sense, as opposed to the token slaughter/torture/prison rape scene in any given Sons of Anarchy episode. Instead of going for shock value, it stays focused on Abel and his goals for his business, as well as some of the relationships in his orbit, like his wife, a mobster’s daughter who has her own way of doing things, played by Jessica Chastain. Albert Brooks also banks some screen time, excellently playing against his comedic type like he did in Drive, as Abel’s somewhat slimy attorney.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect movie. Some might feel that Chandor has trouble balancing the slow burn in places. But one person’s slower moments are another person’s smart, deliberate pacing. And no matter where you land, these moments are few and far between. What we mostly have is an engrossing story of characters that have to maneuver to success or failure, while living with their backs up to the walls like scared rats in a dark subway tunnel. Or perhaps, like a petrified tourist in New York that’s overly paranoid about the pimps and the chuds because he’s seen Taxi Driver too many times.