Review: A Most Violent Year

A businessman struggles to stick to the right path in 1980s New York. Molly McElwee reviews

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Director: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabel
Running time: 125 minutes
Rating: ★★★☆☆

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year surprised me. Considering all of the elements embroiled in the plot – criminal investigations, violence, truck hijackings and hugely lucrative business deals – I expected it to be more of a thriller than it was. Instead, the film is a grinding character study of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). An ambitious immigrant businessman who owns a heating-oil company, Morales is striving to prove himself worthy of his success and attempting to reach new heights in his business.

Framed by the illustrious presence of New York City’s iconic skyline, the film’s plot follows his struggle to finalise the biggest business venture of his career, whilst tackling the demons of a criminal investigation and the ensuing havoc of – statistically – the most violent year on record in the Big Apple. However, the main focus of the movie is in fact his inner struggle to remain honourable in spite of the temptation and greed which has become a part of his trade. It is no coincidence that even his name embodies this theme, as morals and goodness are the foundations of them both. Morales is intent on sticking to what he calls the “most right path”, but with just thirty days left to secure ownership of an oil shipping yard, which could make him stratospherically powerful and rich in his field, it seems temptations to diverge from his ethical standpoint only grow.

He feels these pressures from all directions – from the District Attorney who continues to probe into the legality of his company’s affairs; from his truck drivers, who feel vulnerable and without any sort of protection on the road; from the bank who holds the key to the loan which could change his life; and, most significantly, from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). The “Brooklyn corner-store-gangster’s daughter” is a formidable force in the movie, ruthless and gritty in her attempts to steer her husband into the path of success – whatever the cost. In almost Lady Macbeth-ian fashion, Anna calls into question her husband’s ability to protect his family, his business and himself – she is the voice of doubt ringing in his ears, making him realise that he has “always been more afraid of failure than anything else”.

Entwined in this fear of failure is the interesting sub-plot, which follows Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Morales’ truck drivers, who experiences a traumatic truck hijacking. Morales’ connection with the young man gives us an even deeper understanding of his ambition, which Andrew, his business advisor and partner, seems to question when he asks him, “Why do you want it so much?” Julian is a visual reminder to Morales of where he started and how far he has come, and it is this storyline of the struggling, working class immigrant running parallel to Morales’ moral dilemma, which helps to frame the most important issue of the film.

In the midst of this, Morales’ legal issues are shrouded in ambiguity, and only suggested, rather than fully confirmed. It seems that often, his “most right path” is only the lesser of two evils, as he has already inadvertently succumbed to the pressure through Anna’s underhand wrongdoings. In a world in which chaos is reigning and violence is rising, Morales finds himself caught between joining the trend in order to stay ahead, and sticking to his own honest plan.

Essentially a story about the difficulties found in the pursuit of the American Dream, Morales’ journey, though thought-provoking and challenging, is more slow burning than thrilling. Isaac’s performance is notable, and his portrayal of Morales as a man trying to gain the respect his success deserves is both honest and intense. However, the film did not grip me in the way I had expected. Though the character development and symbolic subplot are the film’s saving graces, the complete package was not the riveting experience I had hoped for. In spite of these shortcomings, Morales’ inner conflict is emotionally binding, and for this reason the film is able to keep the audience enticed and involved right up until the end credits.

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