A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year (2014)
  • Time: 125 min
  • Genre: Action | Crime | Drama
  • Director: J.C. Chandor
  • Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo


A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history, and centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.


  • A first-rate vivisection of ambition and moral compromise, A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, reportedly the worst year on record for violent crimes. That year saw the release of Prince and the City, Sidney Lumet’s police corruption drama; Brian DePalma’s Scarface, released in 1983, saw the rise and fall of Tony Montana during 1980s Miami. It’s interesting to note the timelines as the films are thematically of a piece with one another, while J.C. Chandor possesses Lumet’s sense of storytelling.

    Like Tony Montana, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant who has worked his way up in a corrupt industry. Unlike Tony, Abel aspires to be the good guy, the one who takes “the path that is most right.” It’s a phrase that allows for loopholes. He’s all too aware that everyone else around him would rather play dirty than play with principles. When the film begins, he and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) are conducting a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews to purchase a waterfront fuel yard, a piece of property that would position Abel’s oil heating company to corner the market. The terms of the deal couldn’t be simpler: a substantial deposit upfront, the remaining balance to be paid in thirty days. No extensions, no contingencies. If he fails to come up with the rest of the money, then he forfeits his deposit.

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  • Though writer/director J.C. Chandor sets this neo-noir in 1981 New York City, the recent peak of corruption and violence, it reflects equally on the current tarnish of the American Dream. As a result of unfettered capitalism the virtuous hero cannot succeed without seriously compromising himself.
    Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, a planet away from his Llewyn Davis) plays an ambitious Latino determined to become an American success without compromising his ethics. He dresses elegantly, tastefully, without the flash of the old film gangster. His speech and comportment show a man of tight control. He knows where he wants to get to — but will only take “the right path.”
    He bought his gangster father-in-law’s heating oil business but wants to succeed honestly. He has followed the standard practices of the industry. Now, as he struggles to raise the $1.5 million he needs to close the purchase of a waterfront property to receive and store international shipments, he’s threatened with criminal charges and suffers violent thefts of his oil. He resists the teamsters’ thuggish insistence on arming his drivers. He’s buying the property from an Orthodox Jewish businessman who is, like Abel, committed to an archaic code of conduct. He’ll flex to give Abel three extra days to raise the money, but he won’t be in the same room with Abel’s wife when she has to sign the contract.
    Morales is a man of morals but he’s not quite Abel to sustain them — if he wants to succeed. To save his business he has to borrow from a rival at a usurious rate, mortgage the apartment building he shares with his kid brother and — climactically — tap the large sum his wife has been — without his knowledge — skimming off from the company. That’s tax evasion, the sub-standard practice of American business. Though that saves him from borrowing from a gangster, to escape the criminal charges Abel has to promise to support the DA’s political ambitions. So if Abel manages not to be owned by the gangster, he slips into a corrupt coalition with Lawrence ((David Oyelowo), the DA turned self-serving politician.
    In a twist on the genre Abel’s enemy is not some gang boss, as he suspects, but free-lancers who have been stealing his loads to sell to his rivals. That’s the trickle-up theory of corruption, ambitious individuals working on their own, against the law, but abetted and rewarded by Abel’s rivals, who buy their plunder.
    Like Abel, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) has climbed out of Brooklyn to live the high life. They’ve just moved into a new suburban estate. She wears only Armani. As Chastain plays her, her accent shifts between Brooklyn and Manhattan, like the two sets of books she she has maintained, and she doesn’t share her husband’s aversion to guns and their deployment. She’s proud that her husband is unlike her gangster dad, but it’s her calculated crookedness that saves Abel/s fortunes.
    In contrast to Abel’s success, his hapless friend Julian (Elyes Gabel) aspires to Abel’s success. His plan is to progress from driving to sales, but he’s broken by the assault he suffers from thieves. On his first trip back he fights off the robbers with an illicit gun then flees. He doesn’t have Abel’s discipline or strength. He cracks under the feeling of vulnerability that stimulates Abel. Ultimately Julian is helpless, with nowhere to go, a family to support, no hope, so he kills himself. Abel’s first move is to stanch the tank’s bleed of oil. That’s the black blood at the heart of American capitalism.
    The film closes with Alex Ebert singing his own stark summary of the film, “America For Me.” It’s a bitter song, about the ambition and selfishness that by denying compassion make even the apparent winners losers. for more analyses see http://www.yacowar.blogspot.com.

  • “If I were you, I would start treating us with a little more respect or I guarantee he will make it his mission in life to ruin you.”

    New York, 1981. The most violent year in the history of the metropolis New York. No doubt about it, but that violence probably took place somewhere else than where this film took place. Are you expecting some sort of mafia film like “Once upon a time in America”, “The Godfather”, “Scarface” or “The Untouchables” ? Well sorry, but this will be a disappointment for you because it’s not such type of mafia movie. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of a Don Corleone. Anything that smells like mafia stuff or corruption, he tries to avoid studiously. He’s trying to run his business in oil fair and square, without falling back on violent and corrupt interventions. And this despite the tough competition which apparently has no problem with applying harsh and intimidating methods. Abel, the epitome of honesty in these turbulent criminal years, faces terrified truck drivers and an increasing loss because of stolen oil. This together with an investigation by the District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), who is determined to uncover wrongdoings, ensures that an investment Morales trying to finalize with some Jewish businessmen, will be compromised and is doomed to fail.

    I didn’t expect a film about a supplier of oil in the first place. It certainly provides opportunities for other business sectors to be placed at the center of public attention. After “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Promised Land” it was time to put the hard-working fuel suppliers, who make sure that we ordinary citizens have a cozy warm house during a severe winter, in the spotlight. I don’t want to have a prejudice against this noble profession, but as a subject, it resulted in a painfully slow movie in which there was not much to be seen. I did notice the terrible shortage of light-bulbs in that time. Large parts of the film are bathed in scorching darkness. Dark offices, dark corridors, nocturnal wanderings through the house and garden, dark tunnels and staircases. Probably it has to do with the fact that these were the most nefarious years and the protagonists were accustomed to nightly activities. Or it’s because many things weren’t allowed to see the light in that period ? I’m still completely in the dark about that.

    I’ll be honest though. The performances are spectacular. Isaac plays the stubborn manager masterfully. Despite all the setbacks and the enormous pressure he remains determined on the outlined course he doesn’t want to deviate from. Despite the warning from a union man that the truck drivers will abandon him and the continuing distrust of his wife Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain), which apparently has a mafia past, has a dizzying cleavage and commits the only violent offense in this film (with a poor deer as the victim), he doesn’t want to yield to unfair practices. He fits perfectly in snowy New York. He’s as cool and chilly. And that was my biggest problem with the characters. They are all totally numb. Anna is even colder than Abel. The only one who showed some emotions was Julian (Elyes Gabel) whose fear and desperation were believable.

    I’ve also seen A.J. Chandor’s film “All is lost” long time ago and can only conclude that this film fits perfectly. “All is lost” was also visualized beautifully with an unusual rendition, but painfully slow and boring. Brilliant performances, elaborate personalities and expressive character roles serve as the foundation of timeless classics. But when a movie only contains that and has nothing else interesting to offer, you can be sure that a large part of the audience will be slightly disappointed. Including me.

    I’m sure that Morales has the saying “Honesty is the best policy” framed above his bed. And yet, his character was quite contradictory when it comes to being honest. The term “morality” is extremely valuable to Morales (What’s in a name), but at the final confrontation with Lawrence, corruption comes into play. The “like knows like” feeling pops up and then finally Morales tends to do a favor in a way it’s still applied nowadays in the world of business and politics. And the ultimate act in the end, with a banal handkerchief being used to seal a puncture in a huge oil tank, is implausible as a physical phenomenon and also in contradiction with the character of Abel. Apparently the business aspect is more important than the human aspect at that moment. Eventually still a ruthless businessman, our saint Abel.


  • This film has a most misleading title. There is very little violence and it doesn’t take place over a year. But J.C. Chandor’s latest film is a tense and enthralling film about a legitimate businessman who is trying to make a life in a business that is full of crooks.

    The film is set in the industrial areas of New York in 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a heating oil company and is looking to expand his business so that he is able to ship the oil straight to his warehouses instead of buying them through a middleman. Lately his company has been plagued by the hijacking of his trucks and he thinks it is his competitors, all of whom run less than legitimate business. Despite urging from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), Abel refuses to retaliate through violent means. This is due to his company being investigated by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo).

    Writer/director Chandor has truly proven himself with this film. His previous two films Margin Call (a film about the 24 hours leading up to the Global Financial Crisis) and All Is Lost (a film starring only Robert Redford, who plays a man lost at sea) were both critically acclaimed but didn’t get wide recognition from the public due to their esoteric nature. A Most Violent Year follows in this ambiguity and as such might see the same scorn from general audiences. However, this film is masterfully written and delivers on so many levels. The film doesn’t lay all its cards on the table on the table from the outset, instead choosing to reveal backstory as it becomes relevant. It becomes apparent that Abel does not hold any criminal ties, despite the vibe that he does. Instead the real power is held by his wife Anna, who you see holds more power than he does.

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  • Set in New York during 1981, the year in which the city recorded its highest crime rate, A Most Violent Year evokes the American cinema of the 1970’s – brutally unsentimental and strictly character-driven. There are no sweeping shots of Times Square or children playing in water squirting from a busted fire hydrant; this is snowy and industrial, and slower and more thoughtful than it’s rather shoddy title suggests. It’s also bolstered by some impressive performances, with lead Oscar Isaac continuing his recent star-making yet modest run of late, again proving that he is Lon Chaney’s natural successor to the ‘man of a thousand faces’ tag with another chameleon-esque performance.

    Yet the slow pace and brooding intensity doesn’t quite deliver towards the end, offering a predictable and easy resolution compared to the memorable finale I was expecting. Isaac plays immigrant Abel Morales, who is Abel in both name and execution, riding high on the top of a newly-built oil company while his murky competitors snarl at his success. With corruption infesting the entire city from every corner, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is breathing down his neck, only Abel is trying his best to keep on the straight and narrow. The father of his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), belonged to a different generation, one that succeeded through violence and intimidation, exactly the kind of reputation Abel is trying to shake.

    In a bit to surpass his competitors, Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) strike a deal with a group of Jewish Hasidim to purchase land that will allow him to ship in his product directly from the dock. He is given a week to honour the contract and pay a hefty sum, and the land is his. Only his competitors have different ideas, and Abel suspects one, or all, of them are behind the recent truck hijackings that have left his drivers, namely fellow immigrant Julian (Elyes Gabel), shook up. The union are soon on his back to arm his employees so they may have a better chance at defending themselves, but Abel wants no blood on his hands. With pressure coming from the D.A., his rivals, the Teamsters and his wife, Abel must survive the week before his empire crumbles.

    With its dialogue-heavy meetings in barber shops and warehouses and the sight of Isaac in a huge camel-hair coat, comparisons to classics gangster films, notably The Godfather (1972), are obvious. But this is a study of business, and the film comes alive with a hushed conversation more than it does with its sporadic bursts of violence. Technically, it’s tightly-controlled and immaculate, with director J.C. Chandor wisely choosing not to score the film with 80’s synth and give everyone a mullet, but instead preferring a more lived-in feel. However, too often does the story seem unbelievable and contradictory for such a polished film, faltering at the pay-off when the build-up suggested something special. If I gave half-stars in my review ratings then this would certainly earn itself one, but it will have to settle for 3 out of 5 for now.

    Rating: 3/5

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