A MOST Violent Year is a most understated film. It is set in pre zero-tolerance New York, 1981. Statistically, the year was the most violent on record. Throughout the film, the car radio crackles with news bulletins of murder, of police shooting and being shot at.
The city is recognisably one run by gangsterism, whether it comes in the form of organised labour, small-time thugs, big-time mobsters, police or politicians.
It is into this cauldron that Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) reach for the American dream.
Abel is an immigrant, from Colombia, seeking to prove himself both by succeeding and by defying stereotypes. Anna is the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster, seeking respectability through sophistication whose default response to obstacles is brutal, devious.
“You’re not going to like what’ll happen if I get involved,” she tells her husband when it looks as if his touch is too soft.
Abel’s in the unglamorous business of providing domestic heating fuel, and he’s poised to take a leap into the big time by buying a Brooklyn riverside plot.
To do so he’s overextended his debt, and as his competitors and creditors circle, and the district attorney probes his business practices, his dream looks set to unravel.
Violence is an option that is always ready-to-hand. Indeed, since force and coercion are the thread of this society, it would seem a no-brainer that violence is the only likely course of action for anyone in these circumstances.
Yet Abel is determined to avoid it.
He recognises that there are shades of morality, and that from a hypothetical point of view from which innocence and guilt are discernible from each other, he would look very much like a gangster.
But he doesn’t think of himself as one. He measures his virtue not by doing good, but by making choices he considers “more right”.
Holding this position on the edge of the moral is a challenge that writer-director J.C. Chandor achieves brilliantly, keeping his characters and his audience on the brink.
In a minimal yet evocative manner, the brutal way of the gangster is a constant threat, always tempting. To succumb, would be the end of Abel’s dream. The dramatic force of the film is in his determination not to, and the effect is riveting.
***** Yves Vanderhaeghen
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