1981. One of the most violent years in New York City’s history. The year recorded 188,178 counts of violence, 1,026,757 property damages, 350,422 burglaries, 136,849 vehicle thefts, 5,479 rapes and 2,166 murders. 1981 in New York City was truly a year to have been afraid of. Now in 2015, there’s a more than capable film which emphasises the harshness of that year.
A Most Violent Year centres on immigrant Abel Morales and his family trying to expand their business honestly during a time of corruption and decay. As they try to capitalise on the opportunities of the 80’s, the violence and immorality of the city fights back and threatens to curtail both their business and the goodness of their lives. Year is a layered story that constantly builds, simmering away until Morales and the city hit rock-bottom, with hope in the future becoming the only way forward.
It’s a slow-burning tale, difficult to understand at first because setting the scene to such a complex backdrop takes time. As the film develops and the tension builds, A Most Violent Year climaxes suitably, leaving one riveted at how effective everything has come together. Unlike most films of today that try to explicitly feed scenes down your throat with effects and noise, Year cleverly makes sure that no scene is devoid of meaning.
The problem is New York is lacking of any pride in the 80’s and the people in power will go to any lengths to keep business going, legally or illegally. As records of crime have declined in the past three decades, pride it seems has been restored to the city that never sleeps. By the end of this slow-burning tale A Most Violent Year has hit the right note with a delightfully executed piece of filmmaking.
“A Most Violent Year has hit the right note with a delightfully executed piece of filmmaking”
Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales and maintains a believable seriousness in his character that seems unruffled by his competitors and stern in his approach to his business, never bowing down to the direction of crime. Isaac makes use of his linguistic abilities as he acts well in English but perhaps even better in Spanish! Isaac should be commended as not once during gloomy moments does he break his urbane stride.
Jessica Chastain portrays his wife Anna Morales, a woman with a sense of authority yet a fear, unlike her husband, of the city she inhabits. She is a weird character and it’s hard to unravel as to whether she is weak or strong. Despite pointlessly buying a gun to protect herself, her relationship with her good-hearted, determined husband rubs off on her, keeping her on the straight and narrow in the film and in our hearts. Chastain is an actress that resembles the Hollywood stars of the 40’s and 50’s as she has the upper-class look of a woman that reeks glamour and feminist power. Their relationship is fantastically believable as it feels old-fashioned – that is, unable to deteriorate. It is also edgy, with a sexual bite to it, but also a business-like distance making it and their performances integral to the film.
Old-fashioned is the word to describe A Most Violent Year, as it seems to be an ode to the old crime, gangster films of the 70s. After all the jogging Morales is seen doing, he must be tested physically in order to prove his mettle as an imposing businessman and in turn takes part in a chase scene that is thrilling from inception to climax. The chase has the feel of The French Connection as it starts off with in cars, then a sprint, then train-hiding and finally a platform-thumping. It has the elusive mysteriousness of Chinatown as the lack of honesty in a year where crime was at an all time high provokes Morales into uncovering what is really going down. Even the greatest of crime films, The Godfather, is utilised to good effect. Abel Morales wants to promote his business legally, like Michael Corleone, without disgracing himself with violence or dirty money. But what diversifies A Most Violent Year from its influences is the fact the film never succumbs to the power of corruption by always offering hope. Year’s premise gives the film the lease to return to old-fashioned crime filmmaking and employ the great inspirations of crime films as a model for its own success.
Director J.C. Chandor’s short but impressive filmography, consisting of the likes of the economically brilliant Margin Call and the silently isolated All Is Lost, is trumped by A Most Violent Year’s stylish depictions. The film is sleek and stylish with its sharp, distinct autumnal palette. The colours along with the shot of the New York skyline across the river is not only a fantastic shot that encapsulates the urban grittiness of the city, but this also dictates that Noir is a prevalent influence. Like any classic noir flick, the story lacks clarity at points but it is made up for by its two engaging protagonists that lead you further into this hellish world that takes advantage of anyone. If you’re going in looking for brutality then this film isn’t for you as it actually has minimal violence, despite it’s title.
Seldom do films with a gritty outlook on life and a transfixing storyline with a purpose get made, but A Most Violent Year breaks this trend with a fascinating investigation of a businessman resisting corruption during the height of criminal activity in 1981.