Let me get this out of the way before I formally start this review: I do not know New York City better than people who actually live in New York (I can take a train directly into Grand Central from my local stop; that’s where my credentials end), but I at least understand it better than people who have only seen the inside of the Bubba Gump in Times Square.
So once upon a time, New York City was an awful crime-ridden hellhole. This is what you will hear today anytime you enter a trendy Williamsburg restaurant. Mid-bite of a $30 sandwich, some old guy will begin to rant about how horrible the neighborhood once was, and also how much better the city was when The Ramones were around. Nostalgia is a complicated force with many faces.
Instead of piggy backing of off the human need for nostalgia, A Most Violent Year instead uses this time period as a backdrop to tell a surprisingly mellow story. The film is set in 1981, supposedly the peak of deadly crime in the city. It seems like the worst possible time to make a living, but Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a successful oil business. He prides himself on his honesty and integrity. Unlike most people, he can get ahead without compromising his morals. However, as his business gets threatened by rivals in some very violent ways, he is forced to compromise. The problem with Abel is that he is often so passive that it is hard to tell what moral compass it is that he doesn’t want to break.
Oscar Isaac is one of those actors who is so good and so varied in his talent that it makes me angry. Same goes for Jessica Chastain, who scores big as his wife and bookkeeper Anna. She is an embodiment of a tough new money attitude. The most interesting scenes in the film are the ones in which she plays a starring role. In one standout scene, Abel and Anna must decide what to do with a dying deer on the side of the road. He grabs a crowbar; she silently grabs a gun and shoots it without hesitation. Abel might seem to be the most powerful person in the film, but he loses in the war at home.
Scenes like that make me wish Chastain could have had more screen time. She is a source of energy that the film needs, because it often moves at a snail’s pace. At times, I didn’t feel as frightened as I should have during some terrible events, like when a man with a gun gets dangerously close to murdering Abel and his family.
Maybe this is because I was expecting a crime thriller, when this is really a story about the struggle to avoid criminal activity in a world that demands short cuts. A Most Violent Year is a morality tale that sometimes feels more like a novel than a film. Yet, J.C. Chandor, who has the name of a 1940s film noir detective, has a directorial style that feels out of the past. One chase scene, which involves multiple types of transportation, feels like something right out of The French Connection. It builds not just on tension from the moment, but on everything we have known about the character prior.
The highest compliment I can pay A Most Violent Year is that it is certainly a beautiful looking film. It is shot mainly during that depressing part of any given winter day when it seems like the day is ending just as it is beginning. There is one particularly beautiful image where blood and oil mix, something that even Upton Sinclair probably couldn’t come up with in writing. The film captures the gritty, graffiti-covered abandoned factories of the outer boroughs that haven’t gone exactly gone away today, despite gentrification. The Manhattan skyline is featured prominently in the film but usually as a blurry backdrop beyond the reaches of the 59th Street Bridge. These aren’t people living outside the law, but they are living in the shadow of greatness.
The old cliche goes that every New York story features New York as a third character. A Most Violent Year is a New York story that at least tries to look at this familiar city a little differently. We have seen enough couples fall in love on top of the Empire State Building, so why not take us to the East River docks for a change. A Most Violent Year isn’t perfect, but that adds to some of its charm. It is a familiar story about the downside of the American Dream told just a little differently.