I had no idea what A Most Violent Year was before my screening. This was even before the smaller, limited release managed to gain traction and before I realized how good the cast assembled was. With little to no advertising, it was swallowed up by the big films vying for awards during this more difficult season.
But now that the season is over, and A Most Violent Year is finally opening for a wider release, I can finally admit how wrong I was for ignoring it for so long. A Most Violent Year is precise, intelligent, and full of powerful moments.
Taking place in New York City, 1981, statistically the most violent year in the city’s history, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a young man from an immigrant family who’s just trying to run a legitimate heat and oil company without succumbing to the crooked nature of the business. But thanks to his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and an ongoing investigation into the mafia from District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), Abel is put through the ringer and it’s up to him to decide whether or not to keep his hands free of corruption.
A Most Violent Year is an intense breakdown of the mafia genre. While the film does display a lot of the cornier characteristics of mafia films (meetings of all the head honchos, one mysterious man who dictates everything), the film’s filter helps to dilute the inherent cartoonishness usually found. Thanks to its gritty, but not overtly so tone, the story is grounded within realistic bounds. Thanks to Abel’s hands off approach, the criminal underworld is always kept on the sidelines and Year is left to critique its approach from an open perspective. It’s a smart balance between utilizing the themes of the genre while telling a unique story. It turns out to be far more compelling watching Abel distance himself as you root against the American Dream.
You see, A Most Violent Year is one of the few films with a positive Latin protagonist (although the way everyone says his first and last name bugs me a bit), and for once it’s what defines the film rather than a consequence. For example, the messages about the American Dream (in which we watch Abel, a successful man from an immigrant family, interact with Julian, a struggling man from an immigrant family) hit a bit harder given that you can feel the amount of struggle from a place of non-privilege. And a smaller, but important step forward is that it’s never once implied that Abel is struggling because he’s an non-white character. Sure it seems like a weird, non-sequitur of a critique but I can’t help but celebrate well put together Latin characters.
What really helps the film sink in is the cast. While the deliberate pace of the film will turn some folks off (the narrative admittedly isn’t engaging in certain spots), the cast helps anchor the film and once again reigns in the genre. For example Chastain’s character Anna is completely stereotypical, but her performance adds a layer of depth not found in the writing (like that one speech about respect found in the trailer should’ve been completely flat, but is one of the best scenes in the film). It’s a shame she’s not in the film enough. A lot of the film’s lines and sequences would’ve failed if weren’t for the performances. They’re kind of hokey and on the nose, but it’s hard to care when Isaac and Chastain are allowed to play off each other. Good thing Oscar Isaac is going to be in more things too. He’s fantastic in this.
A Most Violent Year is also a most exquisite one. While some of the scenes and dialogue don’t mesh well with the film’s grounded tone and serve to almost break the film’s reality (and become the film it seeks to reinvent), the cast never once lets that get to them. With a Latin protagonist, a setting used in a new way (although the backdrop is “the most violent” in New York’s history, violence never clouds the narrative), and a well thought out take on an aging genre, A Most Violent Year is definitely one of my favorites.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain should just be in every movie from now on.