Set in early 1980s New York, “A Most Violent Year” follows a successful immigrant, Abel Morales. Morales worked his way up from a lowly oil truck driver to owning his own company. As he attempts to expand his business he continually runs up against dishonest competitors and the high level of crime in New York.
He strikes a deal to purchase an adjacent facility, but keeps running into challenges on multiple fronts. His oil tankers continuously and mysteriously get robbed, causing his drivers to lose faith in him. The DA in charge of addressing corruption in the oil industry is investigating his company for fraud.
Meanwhile, his wife continually grows less certain of their safety as rivals attempt to intimidate the Morales family. In the midst of these troubles Abel Morales attempts to stick to his beliefs of dealing with his challengers legally and honestly. The struggle is tense and intimate.
“A Most Violent Year” contains many tropes that will be instantly recognisable to fans of the traditional gangster genre, such as the New York setting, the rising protagonist, and the classic barbershop scene. It even includes actors from HBO mob crime dramas “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Wire.”
Where “A Most Violent Year” differs is in its uncompromising hero. Rather than cataloging a slow descent spurred further downward by hard decisions, Abel Morales is adamant when it comes to his business processes and integrity. The film generates significant tension, watching Morales wrestle with the pressures on all sides while trying to stay true to what he believes.
This is the third feature film written and directed by J.C. Chandor. His debut film, “Margin Call,” was a complex business drama, telling the tale of the major players in an investment firm reacting to the early stages of the financial crisis of 2008.
Compared to “Margin Call,” “A Most Violent Year” is a much more approachable, down to earth story. Where “Margin Call” wows with high-level investment trading and the internal politics of the corporation, Abel Morales’ simple oil retail business puts the focus on the hard choices he has to make.
Oscar Isaac shows his depth as an actor in his role as Morales. Isaac is most famous for playing the title role in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Davis was a down-on-his-luck musician who couldn’t get a foothold in the industry and who was often disliked, lost and unsure of himself. Almost the polar opposite, the persistently determined Abel Morales displays confidence and takes risks.
In a reversal of the classic gangster movies, “A Most Violent Year” is an inspiring commentary on morality. The symbolism present in the film emphasizes this. For example, Abel’s wife has mob connections and continues to propose easy but morally questionable options. Just like his wife, the business he is “married” to is inherently related to crime.
Abel Morales lives up to his name. He is the living, righteous, morality amidst a corrupt and destructive environment. In a genre populated with anti-heroes, his battle with honesty is a welcome, insightful challenge to common tropes.