Is it possible to have a quiet, intimate story about mob violence? A Most Violent Year is here to try. But despite its title, the film is in fact less violent than nearly every similarly-themed film and TV show I can name. It’s to the film’s credit that it avoids any breed of sensationalism. But the results hint at why most mafia flicks are so bloody in the first place.
The 400-Word Review: A Most Violent Year
By Sean Collier
February 2, 2015
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a fuel distribution company, having risen quickly via an influx of cash from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). She received the money by way of her father’s lifetime of shady deals, but Abel’s crimes are minor; he’s probably messing with the books, and he can’t really operate in 1980s New York without some ties to organized crime. Relatively speaking, though, he’s on the up-and-up.
Suddenly, though, Abel’s trucks are being robbed and the company’s finances are being scrutinized by the D.A.’s office — just when he’s put a substantial down payment on a huge tract of land, too. Now the banks won’t lend him the money to complete the sale, Anna is growing agitated about the lack of security and prevalence of prowlers at their new house and a spooked driver is on the run.
Whenever you think a barrage of gunfire is about to erupt, a stern word or exasperated glare emerge instead. Writer and director J.C. Chandor (previously of All is Lost and Margin Call) is more interested in the human stories that populate this underworld than showdowns. To an extent, that’s refreshing; when even parodies of organized crime rack up body counts, it’s a pleasant change to visit a world where there are potential outcomes that lay between a mountain of cash and a bullet to the head.
Isaac and Chastain, fully committed and with just the right degree of discomfort threading through their chemistry, make A Most Violent Year easily compelling; the presence of Albert Brooks as Abel’s partner goes a long way. And cinematographer Bradford Young draws immense beauty out of New York in its grimiest, most unflattering period.
Unfortunately, it all feels a bit thin in the end. It seems that without the life-or-death stakes, the audience is given time to wonder why these small-time crooks are worth caring about in the first place. And while I generally admired the film, I don’t have an answer.
My Rating: 7/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark