There is no Michael Corleone or Tony Montana archetype in A Most Violent Year. Although Oscar Isaac does channel some of the behaviorism of Al Pacino’s Michael, I’ll disagree with anyone saying this is just another boring stereotypical portrayal of a man turning to monster in order to survive in an unforgiving environment. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a refreshing perspective into darwinian environments. The fact that he remains to a large extent untainted by the unscrupulous, corrupt and violent nature of his competitors and society, is something unique. J.C Chandor has created a narrative for Morales that’s realistic and not over-the-top mafiosi style. Amidst the dark imagery and gritty tone, it finds a light.
Some may find A Most Violent Year’s pace slow, and lacking a certain ‘tragic hero’ protagonist in most crime/gangster films where the main character takes a descent into the depths of immorality. In actual fact, it’s not even that kind of movie. There’s no exaggeration, no dramatized violence, and it doesn’t categorize itself as that kind of film. At it’s core, it’s a wonderful depiction of a determined businessman trying to make it in a harsh ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. At the same time, he is a man of conscience and morals. Far too few crime movies explore a character who tries to negotiate between success and morals, but A Most Violent year attempts a complicated character study that is quite effective.
The film’s suspense and grit stems from intense dialogue and character relationships. J.C Chandor takes time to develop the complexities between husband and wife, businessman and legal enforcers, victim and perpetrator. Combining this with the sepia tone he has shot the film with, Chandor brilliantly depicts a shady cosmos that is 1981 New York City, filled with violent intentions and a neo-noir authenticity. Despite engaging in a darwinian environment, Morales (Oscar Isaac) does not wholly subscribe to it’s ways. Oscar Isaac plays a man who is torn between two ends of the moral spectrum, but finds a compromise at the end. This alone, is a redeeming quality that is hardly seen in movies of similar mold. Oscar Isaac combined contrasting aspects of morality without looking pretentious. He berates Anna (Jessica Chastain) for using an illegal gun, and pleads instead of threatening his competitors to stop raiding his oil trucks. Of course, the film does not make the mistake of making Morales as some sort of sainted hero amongst the evil. He gives the guilty another chance, but also uses the illegal money that Anna siphoned off earlier to worm his way out of disaster. This indirect complicitness is a brilliant device that depicts the ugly truth; No one is clean.
Thematically, A Most Violent Year is quite tragic. This poignant fact lends perspective on society, making the film larger than its characters. It’s sustained through a riveting performance by Jessica Chastain (Anna Morales) and Elyes Gabel (Julian). As you’ll see,especially in the final scene (which I won’t spoil), the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’ is a bloody affair with disastrous effects. The film delivers few but powerful punches like these that underscores it’s message. In my view, although Abel Morales is still able to tread between the lines of morality, the film foreshadows a dark future where even district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) tries to capitalize on Abel’s newfound fortune.
This film is high on making meaningful complex relationships, and low on the actual action. Truth be told, it derives it’s gritty energy from a strong emphasis on narrative. Jessica Chastain serves a very powerful function that adds another layer to the film. She is not just a foil to Abel but also a manifestation of his own insecurities. Her insecure tendencies spring up because of Abel’s suppression of his own. In the end, even when trying to avoid the rules of a dangerous game, it’s effects are still far-reaching, and devastating. It’s one of my top 10 films of the year because it’s an effective character and societal study. It doesn’t follow stereotypes or archetypes in delivering a resounding message. One should appreciate that Abel Morales is one of the few convincing depictions of an able and moral man (nice pun J.C.) in the crime genre.
What are your thoughts? 🙂