A Most Violent Year evokes familiar and beloved gangster films in almost every fiber of its being. Oscar Isaac's Abel Morales has the cool demeanor and ambition of Michael Corleone. He's got the fashion sense too -- Morales' cozy tan trench coat looks like something straight out of the Corleone Collection.
His life story conjures up another Al Pacino character: Tony Montana. Morales is a Latino immigrant trying to carve out his own kingdom in an American city that is hostile to him. Sure, it's chilly New York City rather than sunny Miami, and, granted, Morales possesses exactly zero of the bombast of Montana's character, but if you close your eyes at the right moment and listen to him passionately explain everything he is fighting for as Alex Ebert's synth-heavy score backs him up, it begins to sound like Scarface 2: The Heating Oil Business. Open your eyes up again, and you're liable to glimpse Jessica Chastain, Morales' wife Anna, herself a callback to Michelle Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock in more than a few ways.
The funny thing about all of this is that A Most Violent Year isn't really a gangster movie at all. It isn't even particularly violent. The title itself is more of a signpost, establishing the backdrop of the film -- 1981 New York, one of the most violent years in the city's history -- rather than teasing at the contents inside.
Abel Morales isn’t a mafioso kingpin. Instead, he’s the owner of a heating oil business that is already taking off and is poised to boom if he can complete a highly tenuous land deal across the Hudson River in New Jersey in Brooklyn [ed. note: thanks for the tip, high school classmate] that will give him direct access to Manhattan. He has 30 days to close and his life savings are on the line. As if to drive home this point, Morales packs that savings in to a briefcase — another touch reminiscent of a mob flick — and hands it over to the sellers, a group of Hasidic Jews led by Jerry Adler, as a deposit in one of the film’s first scenes.
He is dealing with the same kind of threats a gangster might, thus further jeopardizing a deal that has stretched him perilously thin. Someone keeps robbing his trucks, and doing so with increasing brazenness. One of his drivers is dragged from a truck and viciously beaten at a toll booth during the opening sequence. The same driver gets involved in a shootout on the 59th Street Bridge later in the film. The D.A., meanwhile, one David Oyelowo in a decidedly less upstanding role than his last one, is preparing to file a vague set of charges against him, probably related to questionable accounting practices.
What makes Morales such a curiosity is how he chooses to deal with those threats. He is fully cooperative with the D.A. He is intent on trying to figure out who is stealing from him but seemingly unwilling to consider any sort of retaliation with muscle. He won’t let his drivers carry weapons, despite just such a request from the teamsters. He certainly won’t entertain the idea of going to his father-in-law, an actual mafioso, for help. With his big deal gravely imperiled, Abel circles the wagons, relying on his wife (who also happens to be his accountant) and his lawyer, played by Albert Brooks, for counsel as he tries desperately to hold it all together.
Abel is an ideas man if ever there was one — an obsessive visionary and an almost cliche avatar of the American Dream. He has a moral code, and it is only slightly mangled. He accepts shady accounting practices up to “industry standards,” but stops well short of considering anything else illegal. There is the insinuation, if you consider his desperation, that that might not really be true, but it never comes to that so we’re only left to wonder. Quiet charisma, piercing drive and total unflappability are Abel’s only real qualities, but they come through so powerfully that he needn’t bring anything else to the table. The details are left to Anna and his lawyer. With Abel looking the other way as much as he can, they could do worse. That they haven’t is further testament to Abel’s singular focus and penchant for getting others to buy in.
Director J.C. Chandor seems to be holding a mirror up to Michael Corleone, yes, but also to the likes of John D. Rockefeller. A Most Violent Year matches the mood of The Godfather Part II — of Michael’s insatiable thirst for legitimacy even as he keeps getting sucked down in to the muck — but Abel’s predicament is precisely the inverse. He is trying to stay as legitimate as he possibly can despite every opportunity to do the opposite. The allusions to so many cinematic gangsters are right out in the open, but so too are the ones to titans of American industry. Abel’s trucks are emblazoned with “Standard Oil” in case you’re worried you’ll have to look too hard.
Like Chandor’s two previous films, All is Lost and Margin Call, A Most Violent Yearis methodical, pensive and profoundly gripping despite superficial elements that would not seem to add up to that. In Isaac and Chastain he has two leads that can carry such a story with the perfect blend of intensity and subtlety. I’m not sure if this is a classic, but I’m entertaining the possibility.