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With A Nod To Another Classic, 'A Most Violent Year' Is An Able Crime Drama

Courtesy of A24

A Most Violent Year takes place in New York in 1981. Abel Morales is the half working class, half newly-rich head of a company. He started driving oil trucks in New York, now he owns a fleet of trucks and is about to expand his business. He makes a down payment on an oil storage facility that stands right beside the river so boats can unload their oil directly into Abel's tanks, giving him a lot of control over the oil business in New York.

But Abel's life is unstable. He has to make this enormous payment in cash to a Hasidic Jew who is kind, concerned – and unyielding on the money arrangement. If Abel doesn't make the second payment on time, he forfeits everything.

Abel Morales' (Oscar Isaac) business is a grubby pile of office, trucks, tanks, pipes, trash and weeds. With his wife (Jessica Chastain), Abel soon moves into the rich half-rural suburbs – roads without sidewalks, a house with clean, stark lines and crisp surfaces. Both worlds are expensive, and business is rough – someone is hijacking Abel's trucks, and Abel is about to be indicted by the district attorney (David Oyelowo) on fraud and tax charges.

Home heating oil delivery in the northeast may not be a subject that automatically gets your juices flowing, and it's a talky, sometimes static movie. Characters talk about what's going on; Abel and his lawyer talk with the D.A.; they talk about the real estate deal; Abel talks with his wife. But writer/director J.C. Chandor makes it all feel urgent because with just about every conversation, Abel's situation is in the balance. If any one thing goes south, Abel is lost – he'll be broke, he'll be dead, he'll be in prison. Those are the possibilities.

He's not a bad guy. He doesn't want his drivers to carry guns; he won't go after the other oil companies; he's rational; he talks constantly about doing things the decent way, and for a lot of the movie you feel for this man trying to make an honest living. At the same time, he may well have been cheating. Abel and his wife make sure they remember where the other set of books is hidden, and when the DA shows up with a search warrant – at the expensive new house during the daughter's birthday party – Abel frantically stows boxes of papers under the house. It may strike you as odd that the cops don't look where Abel hides.


The movie has some general problems with things like that, but the carelessness over details doesn't get in the way. It's a good portrait of a complicated guy – part honest, part not, if it's possible to be partly honest.

Abel has that immigrant's dream to make good in America. He has well-manicured hair and he dresses well. But in his camel hair coat he looks a lot like young Michael Corleone after Michael has taken the reins of the family.

I bet that's no accident.

Most of our immigrant dramas are simplified and sanitized melodramas about people making good without complications or contradictions. Innocence ranks high on the list of characteristics, so that suffering is especially poignant. It's a big moment and it takes a complicated sequence in The Godfather when Michael gives up innocence in favor of joining his father's way of life.

Abel Morales is never innocent, though. The first shots of him make you wonder by what means he got what he's got. He's furtive, in a subtle way, too well groomed and too sure of himself. Our suspicions kick in because Abel is never without his lawyer.

For A Most Violent Year, a certain notion of real life as compromise has replaced the idea of innocence. That could suggest that we the audience have grown more mature – and maybe that we've grown more cynical.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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