1981 was not the best year for New York City. The winter of 1981 was a season full of murder and danger around every corner of the city. According to statistics, 1981 was the most violent year in New York City’s history, a scary stat since New York City was always considered a dangerous place to visit. A Most Violent Year uses the city, at that time, as a backdrop for its story.
The violence and danger is displayed in two ways in A Most Violent Year. First, the characters in the movie are always listening to broadcast radio or to a CB radio. Through the regular radio broadcasts, news anchors are continuously letting the listeners know about the latest murders, rapes and attacks taking place in the city. Through the CB radios and police scanners, instant notice is given when police are called to the scene of a crime.
This makes the predicament of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his heating oil company such a mess. His oil delivery trucks are under attack and a number have been car jacked and stolen. The movie starts with one of his drivers attacked and his truck stolen, and Abel can’t get the police or the assistant district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) to help him.
The police are too busy trying to stop the murders that is running rampant through the city, and trying to not end up on the wrong side of the bullet, to care about helping a businessman save his prized oil. The district attorney’s office is too busy trying to clean up the city and are currently investigating Abel’s business for fraud, tax evasion and other crimes to care about helping him solve his problems.
This is rough on Abel, who has only 30 days to close a deal with an Amish family to purchase a huge refinery that they inherited and he has already secured the bank’s promise to finance it. However, between the teamsters demanding that his drivers carry guns, the district attorney leveling charges against him and the constant theft of his oil and trucks, Abel is finding it harder and harder to try to remain one of the only good men operating the oil business in New York City.
That is what A Most Violent Year is all about. Despite Abel being investigated for numerous crimes, he really didn’t have a hand in any of them. He spends much of the movie trying to fight to keep his business afloat and his family safe while his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is scouring the books, trying to find what the district attorney has against them. Meanwhile, he is pressuring his rivals, all of which are gangsters, to give up which one of them is stealing from him.
Oscar Isaac is fantastic in his role as Abel. He is a good man, and there are even points in the movie where he is pushed to the edge, ready to finally give in and turn into the gangster that he has prided himself in avoiding. However, where some scripts would cheapen the story by having the hero show signs of degradation, this story is about a good man remaining a good man. It is a rare situation, as the movie almost feels like Goodfellas, except with a good man never giving in.
Jessica Chastain is also fantastic in her role as his wife, a woman whose father was a gangster as well and whom they inherited half of the oil company from. She is much harder of a person than Abel, and while she makes it clear that he is responsible for keeping her and their kids safe, she proves that she might be better equipped than him to do so. There is a moment where they hit a deer in the road where she proves how strong and ruthless she really is compared to Abel. It seemed like a throwaway scene, but it was very important when developing these two characters.
A Most Violent Year is a slow burn movie, and might be hard for some people to sit through, but the fact is that director J.C. Chandlor has specialized his style of telling a story and letting the events happen as they will. There was a ticking clock, a 30-day window to close the deal, but it never felt like we were rushing to the conclusion. By the time we reach the conclusion, what happens just occurs and then we see that this story is over, but the lives of these characters will continue on in ways that we can only imagine.
There is no reason that Isaac won’t get a nomination for an Oscar based on his performance, and Jessica Chastain deserves one as well for her supporting role. A Most Violent Year is a meditative look at how life can sometimes push a good man to do bad things, but is a rare movie showing what can happen when a man keeps his morals while the entire world around him continues to burn itself to the ground.