A Most Violent Year is another one of those films that got rave reviews toward the end of last year, and yet was completely snubbed by the Oscars, and though the film eventually came to a theater near me, I didn’t feel any particular urgency to see it since my plate was full with Oscar shenanigans. However, I was curious, mostly because of the film’s star, Oscar Isaac, who also starred in my favorite film of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis. Normally I don’t let myself get drawn in solely by the actors at play, but Isaac, in this humble critic’s opinion, is one of the most overlooked actors in popular culture, even if his roles are often the subject of critical acclaim. And he performs quite admirably in A Most Violent Year along with always welcome co-stars Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo.
The story is somewhat complicated, so bear with me. Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of an up and coming oil and heating company in 1981, who through honesty and hard work is trying to work his way into the New York City market. His next step is to purchase a fuel oil terminal, and he puts down a sizeable down payment for the property while he waits for his bank to come through on the remaining loaned amount. Meanwhile, oil trucks throughout New York are getting hijacked at gunpoint, yet Abel refuses to allow his drivers to carry weapons because he is under scrutiny by a prosecutor (David Oyelowo) looking to go after the corruption in the home heating industry. When one of his drivers ends up in a gunfight on the highway, no bank will loan Abel or his business the funds necessary to close the land deal, so he must gradually compromise his own morality in order to compile the $1.5 million he needs to make his business succeed.
Complex plotting aside, this film feels a lot like The Godfather in how it takes a man with good intentions and gradually reduces him to a product of his environment, and then ultimately the master of it. Acting as Abel’s foil is his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who sees from the start the underhanded and necessary steps he needs to take in order to not lose everything. Abel’s constant struggle is in maintaining his dignity and moral superiority, which paradoxically means ignoring his self-excused indiscretions while preventing himself from stooping to the levels of vicious depravity that his wife advocates. It’s an intriguing dynamic that muddies the waters of good and evil by making the steps to evil gradual and yet ever looming.
However, if the film has one flaw, it is because it can at times be something that The Godfather never was: very dull. Despite the great performances and plotting, the film’s subject matter often leaves something to be desired. Let’s face it, the oil and heating business is not a particularly sexy or intriguing subject matter, especially when the film’s largest thematic reference point is a film about the fucking mafia. Sure, the film occasionally diverts to a gunfight or a chase scene, but these moments are fleeting and, while thematically significant, overshadowed by a majority of scenes where men sit in rooms discussing sums of money. I did not truly become invested in the film until I figured out where it was going, and for the majority of the film’s first act I was trying my best to play catch-up as I zoned out from boring conversation to conversation.
That said, though, I found A Most Violent Year to be an overall good film. The summary I provided a couple paragraphs ago should act as a decent primer to get a dedicated viewer through the film’s opening half hour, and I promise that there is plenty else to enjoy in this tale of a moral slippery slope.
So who do you think is one of the most underappreciated actors working today? Let me know in the comments below.