It’s 1981, New York, and the city is awash with crime, corruption and general decay. An idealistic, young man tries to chart a new course but he is met head on with an establishment that is just too powerful. Though this sounds a bit like Sidney Lumet’s 1981 film, PRINCE OF THE CITY, I’m actually referring to screenwriter/director J.C. Chandor’s (MARGIN CALL) latest film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.
I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t a fan of MARGIN CALL, which follows a group of investment bankers as they deal with a burgeoning financial crisis. Although the film was a hit with most of my banker friends, I found it hard to feel empathy for any of the characters. The same can be said for the characters in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, looking a lot like Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER) is a young and driven, heating oil company boss, who is trying to run a fair and clean business in a very dirty industry that has traditionally been run by “families” (wink). We learn from the film that he started out as a driver, married the boss’ daughter, and ultimately bought the business from him. Abel is living the American dream but when his strategies for success (reminiscent of David Mamet’s 1992 film, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) begin to rattle his competitors’ cages, they begin a turf war to drive him out of business. Abel knows that he will need to have more control over his supply chain if his company is to continue growing so he arranges to purchase a piece of riverfront property from an old Hasidic Jew. He puts down a non-refundable down payment on the land and has 30 days to come up with the rest. But his competitors are not going to make it easy for him. Someone is hijacking his trucks and reselling his heating oil. Meanwhile, a young, ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo, SELMA, doing a fairly good working class East coast accent) has it in for Abel, and his office indicts the businessman on 14 counts of fraud and other financial improprieties.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is not a very violent film, and maybe that’s part of the problem with it. Guns are drawn, bullets are fired, people get beaten up but no one gets shot. We are told that running a heating oil company is a tough business to be in, and we see all the machinations, but we don’t really feel how severe the situation it is. The violence is a bit too implied for my taste.
Sure, there are some wonderful moments – particularly those involving Anna (Jessica Chastain, INTERSTELLAR), who sees herself as Abel’s wife, lover, business confidante and apparent subordinate. But when the nouveau riche, suburban blonde with ice in her veins realises that her husband isn’t up to the task of being the family’s protector, she reveals her true colours. While you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, you can’t take Brooklyn out of the girl. Anna is just her mob boss father’s daughter.
This is really a story about morality, though, and how the edges keep getting blurred. Everyone except Abel (whose full name is quite fitting) seems to be involved in – or at least aware of – something shady. Abel wants to rise above the dirtiness, preferring to believe that even a hard-working immigrant can be successful in America. Unfortunately for him, the events that swirl around him keep trying to suck him in. His mantra of “taking the right path” is sorely put to the test.
There is a twist at the end of the film that I originally thought wasn’t necessary but now I see its point. The question we’re left with as the credits rise on the screen is where Abel has ended up on that morality spectrum. He may be a prince of the city but at what cost?
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 28:45.)
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