A Most Violent Year

Listen, I’m glad to be living in New York now, but I am even gladder not to be living here in 1981. Sheesh. This place was filled with guns!

It was pretty cool to watch this in an actual New York movie theater, which my friend pointed out right before it started. There’s something inexplicably significant about being in the location a movie’s about when you’re watching it. (That’s a grammatically correct sentence, I’m sure of it.) You feel closer to the story, you can picture everything happening a little more clearly (if you’re familiar enough with the place, anyway) and you can even place yourself there, even as a proverbial fly on the wall.

A Most Violent Year, admittedly, went over my head a little bit. The details of the deal that Oscar Isaac’s character, Abel Morales, was making, got muddled after he started working with Hasidim to secure a deal for a new piece of property to aid his business. Not that I necessarily needed to know more than that, but I wish I could have followed it more closely instead of re-reading the plot on the internet later. I also wish I were able to tell if it was my fault for not being more attuned, or if the story was holey in parts. Nevermind that.

Oscar Isaac made a very clear, strong impression on me right away, and that impression was of Al Pacino in The Godfather. High praise, and I mean it. The parallels between Abel and Michael Corleone are obvious: He’s a dark-haired guy married to a light-haired lady, he has a big family, he’s making morally ambiguous decisions, he hides a lot of himself in public, he generally keeps his cool and maintains his reputation. Facially, Isaac resembles Pacino, and the both of them have this quality about them that allows for easy character transformation. They’ve also got the ability to carry a movie with quiet dignity. Though Isaac’s been in the movies for years, he’s only now starting to break out. If he can sing like he did in Llewyn and stare like he did in this, he’s going to produce even more magnificent things in the future. (Oh, and he’s got a helluva Robert Duvall in Albert Brooks. Props to that casting director!)

Yet that’s where the similarities end. A Most Violent Year is not about the mafia, and Jessica Chastain, lovely as she is, is not Diane Keaton. Her character, Anna, was far more confrontational, and thus significantly less lovable but far more watchable than Keaton’s Kay. The relationship between the two couples may be similar in how business-like they are, but one could argue that Abel and Anna are equals, or at least approaching it. The 50s were a better time than the 60s. And Abel came from nothing, and never forgot it. He lacks the entitlement that Michael resisted but eventually warmed to.

A Most Violent Year‘s elegance is in what it doesn’t show. There’s an air of simplicity, of transaction, of cleanliness, which contrasts so nicely with the grime of the trucks, the dirt on the bridges, and the grunge of the oil the characters are dealing with, and the looming grossness of the city at that time. Abel doesn’t necessarily make decisions that hurt other people, but he doesn’t stand in the way of people hurting themselves, either. He abides by a certain code, which is not to involve himself unless absolutely necessary. Even with family. Admittedly, in that way, he is Corleone through and through.

This movie isn’t so much an epic story as it is a bleak, stark snapshot of a single, harsh month in time. But it left me wanting more – I wanted to see how Abel and Anna got on in their lives, how their children grew up, how the extended Morales family stayed afloat, how New York City fared… oh, wait. We’re a little better now.

This movie got jipped, right? Yeah, it did. Woulda been too on the nose to have Oscar at the Oscars again, eh, Academy?