J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is a unique crime drama primarily due to its central character, Abel Morales. With a title like “A Most Violent Year,” you’d think Abel would be a hostile pig that’s constantly ordering hits and shouting obscenities. While he engages in unlawful activities, Abel is probably one of the most reputable and humble criminals cinema has ever seen. He doesn’t cheat on his wife, do drugs, or abuse the second amendment. Even when he has to put a dying animal out of its misery, he’s reluctant to do the deed.
Abel is played by Oscar Isaac, who was previously seen as wandering folk singer Llewyn Davis. His story is set in New York 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel allegedly makes his living in heating oil, but the assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has reason to believe he’s up to something else. Abel’s whole world seems to be falling apart. In addition to being under investigation, an unknown competitor is hijacking his trucks, his benefactors are backing out of a crucial loan he needs to expand his business, and one of his lower level employees has gotten into trouble with the authorities.
We’ve seen a lot of movies and TV shows about gangsters that try to present themselves as honest workers. What’s interesting about Abel is that we only occasionally see glimpses of the mobster hiding inside. Abel realizes that his profession requires him to get his hands dirty, but he’ll still attempt to do the right thing and resolve matters in the most peaceful way possible. As hard as he tries, though, Abel can’t always prevent blood from being shed. That’s where his wife comes in.
Jessica Chastain has proven time and time again that she can do no wrong. With long fingernails, a think accent, and cleavage galore, she nails it as Abel’s wife, Anna. In a role that could have been incredibly clichéd, Chastain creates a multi-layered woman. She loves her husband and acts as his rock when times are tough, but also refuses to just sit around and let Abel take care of business. Where her husband will always attempt to find a way around a problem, she’ll confront it head-on even if it means doing something wrong. As long as her family is secure, she doesn’t much care about the means.
If you’re looking for a traditional gangster flick with countless shootouts, “A Most Violent Year” probably won’t be your cup of tea. Others, however, will appreciate the film for its complex characters and original approach to the genre. In many ways, this isn’t even a gangster movie, just as Abel Morales isn’t really a gangster. Of course he’s not exactly what you’d call a legitimate businessman either.
• Ahwatukee native and Arizona State University graduate Nick Spake has been working as a film critic for nine years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.