A Most Violent Year (2014)

Bigger Crooks than Us:

A Most Violent Year




At one point in A Most Violent Year Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) asks his wife-cum-bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) how she is doing with making sure that there is nothing incriminating in the ledgers; and how far back has she gone.  When she tells him, Abel comments wistfully that 1975 was a very good year.

Certainly, it wouldn’t have to be much better to trump the one that they are both suffering through at the moment.  It’s 1981 in New York, which was the most violent the city had on record; and it is impacting on Abel’s oil heating business in the form of a series of hijackings of his trucks.

However, the New York crime statistics (‘more murder and rapes than there have been in years’) and the movie’s title are not reflected in the actual film.   Yes, there are moments of violence, but in the main writer/director J. C. Chandler gives us a low-key trawl through a very murky and morally ambivalent world where next to no one is to be trusted.  As one character points out:

“Everyone in this room is fully capable of lying to their mother on their death beds.”

What we do see are the effects of this violence on people who are trying to do a clean day’s work for their living, such as the young driver Julien (Elyes Gabel) who gets his jaw broken simply because he doesn’t get out of an attacked truck fast enough.  The repercussions of how he reacts to this violence against him will change the entire course of his life.

Then there is the sheer innocence of Abel and Anna’s young daughter who picks up a fully loaded gun in their garden.

Blood and Oil

More ambiguous are just how innocent Abel and Anna in fact are.  We may like Abel and admire his hard-work ethic but we can’t help but observe that he looks and sounds like a young Al Pacino as Don Corleone; or note that Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) often resembles more a wartime consigliore than an attorney.

And Abel may be in denial about what he is, but Andrew is not.  When the former asks in frustration:  “Is this what it’s come to?  We have to walk around outside like gangsters?” Andrew tells him:  “It is and I am.”

And in one of my favourite lines, reminding me inevitably of our white collar criminals here in Ireland, Andrew instructs his client:

“Sit down with the banks.  God knows they’ve given money to bigger crooks than us”.

Later, Abel reflects:  “My bank left me at the altar.”

Yeah; I know just what you mean, Abe.

Even dodgier is the boss of the Teamsters, who reckons that something isn’t illegal if he says it isn’t; but most pragmatic – and possibly, ambitious–may just be the Assistant District Attorney himself, Lawrence (David Oyelowo) who probably speaks for many when he tells Abel:

“You’re all stealing from each other which, as far as I can tell, is just a refreshing take on what you’ve been doing to your fellow customers and taxpayers for the last fifteen years.”

If you get the idea from all this that these are people you wouldn’t be entirely happy to be around, then you’re not far wrong.  So duplicitous does everyone appear that for the first half hour I wondered why Jessica Chastain had taken what appeared to be such an apparently light role.  You pretty soon realise that you’ve totally misread her.  “You’re a Brooklyn cornerstore gangster’s daughter!” Abel yells at her.  Don’t be fooled; she is much more than that.  Indeed, at times she rather frighteningly resembles a low-key Lady Macbeth.

There I go again:  everything about this film is low key.  Don’t watch it expecting a Scorsese; expect a character-driven piece with a screenplay that sneaks right up on you and you’ll love A Most Violent Year as much as I did.

 I already had J. C. Chandon down as someone to watch out for after his brilliant Margin Call; now I have him down as someone not to miss.




Author: Charley Brady

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1 Comment

  1. Yeah the movie title is certainly deceptive, if you’re looking for violence and action this is not the movie for you.

    I found it an interesting piece if somewhat dull, the main character is likable refusing to buckle and be removed from his principles despite constant provocation.

    Certainly not as good as his much pacier Margin Call but the director has certainly started on the right foot although his “Al is Lost” wasn’t my thing.


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