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A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

A Most Dangerous Couple, whereby she does not strike me as being a lady
you want to disappoint

dir: JC Chandor


This will come as a surprise to you, but A Most Violent Year is not a particularly violent movie. There are a few instances of violence, but overall it isn’t even as violent as something with Adam Sandler in it. Yeah, I mean like Pixels.

The year in question is 1981. New York was a much different place then than it is now. Back then, well, your truck could be hijacked, and no-one would even notice. The police were deathly afraid to walk the streets. Only Charles Bronson and Dirty Harry kept the peace by shooting ethnic types in the face.

Times Square was still a bastion of sleaze and depravity, and the metropolis was a living hellhole because Rudy Giuliani hadn’t come along to clean the place up yet. This is, at least, the narrative people have been peddling about New York for the last few decades. You could work in a few references to Ronald Reagan, Milli Vanilli and the Cold War, maybe, but other than that it’s meant to be the bad old days of a city in decline.

The real danger, the real violence, we come to understand, is that being waged against one man’s ego, against his morals, against his very soul.

Honest businessman Abel Morales (the always impressive Oscar Isaacs) is that man.

Many shots in this flick have Abel standing alone, resolute, not wanting to shift one inch in any direction. He’s beyond grounded: he is meant to be immovable. He’s like something installed deep in the concrete of this metropolis.

He may not want to move, or be moved, but the forces around him gather like a hurricane, threatening to destroy him all the same.

As the film begins, rich with its sepia tones and 1970s film aesthetics, Abel and his lawyer / adviser (Albert Brooks in a disturbing wig) is closing a deal to buy a fuel depot from a group of Orthodox Jews in full beards and regalia. Each side of the transaction is respectful, but one side is excited, while the other is stern: stuff up this deal, and you lose everything, champ.

If Abel wasn’t previously under enough pressure, we understand that it’s only going to get worse. One of his truck driving employees, Julian (Elyes Gabel), gets badly pistol-whipped and has his fuel-laden truck hijacked. This is happening more and more to Abel’s trucks.

Something’s going on. While traditionally the ‘oil’ business, as in the supply of heating oil to homes and small businesses, at least in the movies, is a mobbed-up enterprise, Abel is not of that world. Well, that’s what he keeps telling everyone around him (and therefore us) quite strenuously. I don’t think the lad doth protest too much. Everyone, including a quite determined district attorney looking to prosecute him (David Oyelowo), assumes that Abel is mobbed up.

It doesn’t help that his wife Anna (the generally awesome Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a mafia boss. It doesn’t help that Abel has intense looks and those smoky, smoky eyes. It doesn’t help that his former best friend growing up (Alessandro Nivola) is clearly in the mob. It also doesn’t help that all his protestations eventually just make him seem weak to those who want him to seem weak.

After all, if you want to be Machiavellian about it, wouldn’t it be better, even if you’re a moral, upstanding titan of industry, that people think you’re mobbed up even if - especially if - you’re not? Wouldn’t people be less likely to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of your fuel and hospitalise your drivers if they think they’re going to get concrete boots and a free trip to the bottom of the Hudson River if they fuck with you?

That’s just the way I see it, because of course my only knowledge of these things comes from watching movies.

No. Abel has to be pure. He cannot handle even the least suggestion of wrongness. Not only must he be pure in everything, he must yell out about his clean hands from the top of every rooftop, even if it comes back to bite him in the arse.

Over the course of a month, the situation keeps getting more desperate and seemingly dangerous for Abel and those close to him, the screws keep tightening, and he keeps being forced into a corner. This elaborate seeming conspiracy has one purpose: these being the trials and tribulations of Job, it’s in order to get him to change his moral stance, to compromise in some way, big or small, in order to damn him completely.

No-one, especially those closest to him, especially those that admire him for his staunch character / stubbornness, agrees with him. They don’t necessarily want him to fail, but they do want him to compromise. Compromise is the essence of getting along in a complicated world that includes other people.

Compromise is not in Abel’s extensive vocabulary. It’s not an endearing quality even if it is an admirable one. As this assured, stately, some might even say slow movie unfolds, we’re basically seeing a world say to a man “C’mon, just say that fatal ‘yes’ once, and everything will be all right”, and the man keeps saying, not with anger but with absolute conviction, “No.”

The thing is, though, even we, the audience, start saying it too, or at least thinking it. There’s a point past which a character seems less motivated by principle and more motivated purely by ego. When the guy representing the drivers’ union tells Abel he’s not going to let anyone drive his trucks anymore unless Abel lets him arm them with guns, Abel is understandably apoplectic at first.

Thing is, though, he’s been given an ultimatum by someone trying to protect his guys, and Abel chooses to ignore it like everything will just be all right if he ignores it.

For that brief moment, it made it seem like Abel wasn’t acting out of considered certainty, but just blind insistence.

It leads to tragedy, of course, as it should.

It also doesn’t help when your wife is more of a player than you are. I mean, I had no doubt throughout that Abel’s course of action was the ‘right’ one, but it also kinda made me wish the wife was the one in charge, if in fact she wasn’t anyway.

If Jessica Chastain hasn’t played Lady Macbeth yet, she certainly has to, because she seems born for the role. In much of this film her actions seem to be motivated more from a sense that she is angry about being passed over by her dad’s mafia hierarchy just because she was born a girl, and perhaps overcompensates a bit to make up for it. There are some scenes where she blows Oscar Isaacs off the screen, and he ain’t ever a slouch in the acting department.

Still, there are two things she does in the flick that seem like the actions of a stupid / impulsive person, and they seemed profoundly out of character, considering the way in which she’s characterised as being even more cunning and business-savvy than Abel. In fact, considering what the attempted ‘big save’ in the end is, you could almost argue that Abel only has the illusion he’s in control of his own company / destiny, and that he serves, like many of us lucky suckers do, at the pleasure of the Queen, and no other.

If there’s a poor performance / characterisation in the flick, it’s definitely the unfortunate Julian, the truck driver we see suffering in the film’s opening minutes. The actor didn’t fit the role, and his actions, even if we understand the motivation down the track, were pretty ludicrous (and just seemed really uncomfortable, like the actor himself didn’t know what the heck he was doing).

There are a few moments throughout the film (at least a few, if I’m being generous), where the plot doesn’t really hang together, and the overall moral doesn’t really resonate the way that was intended, and the themes don’t play out in a way (at least for me) that I think are saying what the makers intended.

In an overly moralistic story of this calibre, you expect the protagonist to be attacked from all sides, to be tempted in ways great and small, and to either remain incorruptible, or give in and be destroyed. That fatal ‘Yes’ that we hunger for. It’s Old Testament, Manichean bullshit, which is very appealing to moralistic types. It’s appealing to me, and I’m not a moralistic, godbothering type at all, because between the black and white stuff, there’s a lot of grey within which us in-betweeners can cop some decent shade.

I think the flick tries to have its cake and eat it too. The ending is, though perhaps more realistic given the times, the milieu and the people, is something of a cop out of the nth degree. If anything, I was disappointed by how it ended, but not frustrated by it, and I could kind of see what it was saying, it’s just that I didn’t agree with it at all.

It presented a strong character with an impossible situation, given his obsession with being the moral guy, yet gave him easy outs should he choose to take them, and choose he did.

I very much enjoyed watching this movie. I loved how the director and the set designers and such tried to make it look like such of a 70s flick, and how it’s deliberately meant to recall so many of the great flicks that came out of that era without aping them in cloying ways. It definitely stands up on its own two feet, immovable, heroic, delusional and flawed, but determined never to give in.

8 times it reminded me of some of the bouncers who could never be mocked enough, threatened, flattered, bribed enough to be moved to let me in to their clubs out of 10

“I told you. I wasn't gonna continue to stand around and let these people come and get me and my children. Unlike you, who seems to be completely comfortable just standing around like some fucking pussy, I decided to do something about it.” – you go, girl (?) – A Most Violent Year