Last year in New York City, 328 homicides were recorded, meaning that a person was murdered nearly every single day. This measly figure was the lowest statistic since the beginning of such statistics; on average day in 1981, five people would be killed, fifteen people would be raped, and 164 instances of assault and battery would take place. The city was decaying rapidly, and this was even before the crack epidemic; post-Guiliani New York is a glittering, welcoming metropolis in comparison, even despite the shadow of 9/11. A Most Violent Year may not be a most violent movie, but it certainly has a most violent atmosphere, and JC Chandor’s vision of a city at its worst is a most unsettling experience.
Avoiding tired tropes of the gangster genre, Year steps away from the controlled chaos of Goodfellas and The Godfather and edges towards Chinatown, foregrounding location as a major player in the movie’s narrative. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a crooked businessman insofar as he cooks books and fixes prices in the running of his oil company, all in order to rise above his competitors in America’s then-troubled economy. His attempts at expansion are jeopardised when the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) rains charges upon him, right after Abel signs a contract – which demands that he must pay off a $1.5m debt in thirty days flat – to acquire an oil terminal on the East River. Meanwhile, his delivery trucks face near-constant robbery, with thousands of gallons of his oil ostensibly disappearing into thin air, and with the drivers left feeling vulnerable on the job.
Chandor does a fantastic job of presenting New York City as an apocalyptic dead-zone in almost every capacity. The brown-centric colour palette creates a consistent twilight effect over the movie, and the focus on the more dilapidated areas of the city – with the metropolitan skyscrapers always out of reach in the background – essentially works as a living, breathing example of the broken window theory. This is further enforced through the narrative, whereby Abel’s downfall is set to pounce from any direction, and with the very real possibility of violence looming over every plot point. Even his own home has a cutthroat atmosphere, as his tough-as-nails wife Anna (the wonderful Jessica Chastain) encourages him to be proactive in both advancing his business and protecting the family. The domestic power balance is summarised in a sequence in which the couple’s car suddenly smashes into a deer, and Abel is forced by his wife to test his mettle by putting the animal out of its misery. When he balks, Anna proves hers by shooting it in the head. Followed by a shrug.
What raises the stakes the most is that Abel, despite having taken some shortcuts, is continuously mindful of the heavy hand of the law; he must juggle the various opposing forces while trying to remain alive, in business, and out of jail. Whereas Tony Montana would simply mow down his foes in a torrent of bullets, or where Jimmy the Gent would whack a loose asset in the back of a car, Abel aims toward more realistic options, and so A Most Violent Year is surprisingly gripping despite its lack of reliance on visual excitement. It’s the kind of quality that approaches unexpectedly, and that benefits from subsequent consideration. For a film titled after one of its genre’s main pleasures, A Most Violent Year challenges and subverts expectations while remaining an example of seething, captivating cinema.