By Rachael Hussey
With Oscar season in full swing, spending an evening at the cinema is an easy option. Our long winter continues and there is nothing like a warm box of popcorn and some dimmed lights to escape our surroundings. After seeing a trailer for J. C. Chandor’s third movie, A Most Violent Year, I was intrigued. Loving films and all things New York and crime-related, it was an easy choice for my mid-week movie night.
It’s set in 1981, when a Brooklyn based oil tycoon is on his way to the top. Oscar Isaac (Drive, The Bourne Legacy) plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, who runs a successful oil company. Isaac does a tremendous job of portraying the juxtaposition of the ruthless capitalist as well as the dedicated family man. Jessica Chastain (Lawless, The Help) plays his fiery New York wife Anna Morales, with spunk and attitude, in many ways tougher than her husband.
The 1980s in New York City were notorious for crime, violence and police corruption and this film does an excellent job of portraying this in a strong yet understated way. As an oil mogul, Abel’s business is continually targeted for robberies, particularly his trucks distributing oil. We see how one truck driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), copes with the constant threat of armed robbery after experiencing it early in the film. Julian admires his boss, who coming from a similar background against all odds created an empire, successfully assimilating the ‘American Dream’.
The film deals with the protagonists struggle to remain a moral and law abiding entrepreneur while also creating a prosperous empire. Aspiring to a position above his seditious competition Abel struggles to keep his position in the oil world with jealous competition, crime and the law continuously on his tail trying to bring him down. Issues of capitalism and extreme wealth are evident as Morales’ grip on his success slips and his desperation grows while he attempts to hold on to his business.
What’s great about the film is the clever and understated way it portrays the different sides of society: the exuberant wealth, the corruption from the law, the poverty and crime and the hard-working oil employees, representing the working class. While I admire the values of the film, the strong acting and the first-class production values, the essence of this gets lost along the way. As Abel’s obsession with staying on top progresses and his life continues to unravel the audience sees the seedy and corrupt side of this world but it does not happen quickly enough. The message of the story could have been achieved a lot sooner and with a lot more vigour while retaining the style and voice.
A Most Violent Year is a well-produced and well-cast film but it lacks the je ne sais quoi to make it a masterpiece or a classic film that will stand the test of time. While it has some memorable scenes and some beautiful cinematography of New York, the story is a little bit too long; so I suggest you see this if you are in the mood for a slow watch. Despite the title, there is little violence shown and not as much action as one might hope to see in a crime drama.