I can’t help but perceive a certain distance implied in the title A Most Violent Year. It’s as if the speaker is regarding the year in question with an intimate knowledge of the violence referenced without having actually been a part of it, per se. It’s reminiscent of when one hears of the untimely death of someone one doesn’t know personally and remarks something along the lines of “how tragic;” acknowledging the loss without feeling it. That sort of detachment lays at the heart of the journey of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in J.C. Chandor’s film.
Abel is affected by the violence, but not physically or personally. For him, the violence is an inconvenience, something standing in the way of him accomplishing his goal. Violence is something that surrounds him as a New Yorker in 1981, even pervades his environs, but he himself chooses to envision himself as a non-participant in the system of violence that exists. He harbors a belief (or delusion) that one can follow a clear and clean path to success in capitalism. He imagines himself to be much less entrenched in a world of graft and corruption than he actually is. What’s especially clever about this film and Abel’s characterization is that everyone around him seems fully aware of how entrenched he and themselves truly are and how this particular game they’re involved in is played. Throughout the progression of the narrative, Abel is never genuinely shocked to discover areas of corruption in his business or his life, he merely sees himself as somehow above it or innocent of wrongdoing. The progression of his character therefore encompasses him becoming more and more comfortable with his entanglement or association with shadier ways of conducting business. As mentioned above, everyone around Abel is cognizant of the state of affairs, most especially his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who effectively shepherds him along to a greater acceptance of this mode of operation. In this way, A Most Violent Year almost resembles a coming of age story wherein Abel eventually reaches a state of maturity he didn’t possess in the beginning.
All this is to the great credit of J.C. Chandor, whose execution and direction of his own outstanding screenplay makes for a thoroughly compelling exploration of a character and a brilliant meditation on the nature of American capitalism. It is in this way that A Most Violent Year carries on the tradition and employs the aesthetic of the classic American Gangster Film. Pieces of Bradford Young’s excellent cinematography hearken back to Gordon Willis’s masterful work on The Godfather, where his use of brooding, barely lit interiors, magnificent natural light, and mastery of shadow earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” Just as Willis and Francis Coppola provided the perfect aesthetic to display Michael Corleone’s descent into organized crime and emergence as the successor to his father as “Don,” so too do Young and Chandor capture Abel Morales’s path to corruption.
What makes gangsters and organized crime figures so fascinating and the genre built around them so uniquely American is that they are a logical outgrowth of capitalism, a system that greatly benefits so few and produces so many victims. Organized crime arrises when certain individuals and institutions intended to be or likely to be victims of the “normal” capitalism in one way or another devise a way to game the system and create their own niche of power and control. Graft and corruption also function as a means for those in or with power to consolidate that power and ensure the system(s) in place continually function in a way that benefits them at the expense of others. Abel’s own tragic flaw is that he views himself as a success of the “legitimate” capitalist system when in fact he’s always had one foot in each pool, whether he was aware of it or not. To paraphrase Boardwalk Empire‘s Jimmy Darmody, he’d always been “half a gangster” to some extent. Everything he’s built has grown from the seeds of corruption, something entrenched in every aspect of his business interests, regardless of how legitimate he aspires to be. And just as Stringer Bell learned on The Wire, the system does not simply accept reform; the very obstacles in Abel’s path to legitimacy are the pushback from the system he’s operating in.
The two central performances of A Most Violent Year are delivered exceptionally by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, whose characters echo Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their dynamic. Chastain’s Anna is not the least bit squeamish about the shadier aspects of the business at hand and is unafraid of getting her hands dirty. In a way, she even protects her husband from the darker avenues of their enterprise, possessing an awareness of Abel’s need to project legitimacy and integrity. Despite or perhaps because of his naivety, it’s difficult not admire Abel’s tenacity and determination to arrive at his stated goal, giving as little ground as he can in his pursuit down the straightest path he can forge.
Part of what makes Abel such an interesting protagonist for this type of piece is that he comes across as a decent human being. He’s ambitious and tactical without being vengeful or cold. He exhibits what seems like genuine sympathy for the physical suffering incurred by his employees who end up as the victims of Abel’s rivalries. But ultimately, his sympathies come second to his own ambitions. It’s not that Abel relishes the fate suffered by his functionaries who end up as collateral damage in the conflict Abel finds himself in, it’s that he’s merely indifferent to their suffering relative to his own goal. One gets the sense that to Abel, their injuries are unfortunate occurrences suffered by individuals not as smart or as strong as he-people less capable of playing the game. His first concern is always for the impact these events have on his business, not his employees’ safety.
It was a really interesting choice on the part of Chandor to set this film in 1981, because while on the one hand the story has a very timeless quality to it because at its core it’s about very basic, almost primal human drives, but at the same time it’s very much a period film about a specific time in a specific place at a unique time its history. It’s that A Most Violent Year possesses both of those qualities that make it special; it’s about the cost of doing business and executing your ambition at a certain place at a certain time. The film asks the questions of what’s required to succeed in this setting and on what terms.
Abel’s pursuit and desire, both stated and “actual,” are so basic and primal as to almost be simple, but not in a lazy or uninteresting way. Because there is something truly fascinating about watching someone try to execute their vision and unwaveringly attempt to mold something into the form they desire. A Most Violent Year is a narrative hyper-focued on examining its protagonist as he tries to do exactly that; to shape and conduct his business in exactly the way that he desires. In a way, this is similar to the pursuit of narrative; to shape and mold a representation or interpretation of the human experience in a way the artist desires to exhibit. It’s this very pursuit and the presentation of it that make A Most Violent Year such a rich and engaging experience.