Superficially, you could almost be fooled into thinking A Most Violent Year is a follow up to American Hustle. But other than being set a few years later (’81 instead of ’78) and doing for Jessica Chastain’s boobs what Hustle did for Amy Adams’s, tonally, they’re polar opposites. If American Hustle was garage rock Scorsese, all the crime movie fun stuff cranked up to full volume until it started to distort, A Most Violent Year is a broody, minor key track played with its back to the audience. Layered and beautifully composed, sure, but you’d never throw your panties at it. Shouldn’t a movie this competent be a little more… I don’t know… fun?
Oscar Isaac (born Óscar Isaac Hernández), possibly the first actor in history to change his name to something more Jewish, leans heavily on his Latino roots here, playing a bizarro world Tony Montana named Abel Morales. His immigrant background betrayed only by heavily emphasized S sounds, Morales has shed his ethnic trappings, built a heating oil company into a mini empire, bought a big, ugly house in the burbs, and married the sexy, brash daughter of some small-time mobster, carving out his own Tri-State, Sunday gravy version of the American dream. Hard work, a meatball on every pasta spoon, etc. Only he’s bet it all on a big land deal with the Hasidem, and he’s going to lose it unless he can keep the government and gangsters’ hands out of his apple pie long enough to make his nut.
The entirety of A Most Violent Year can be understood as what Scarface might look like if Tony Montana was a pathologically law-abiding businessman determined to make an honest buck without breaking any rules. First ju do the har’ work, then ju watch it pay off. Then ju get the mortgage, then ju pay the taxes. Maybe on the weekend ju play the golf.
Morales, we learn through a series of intense pep talks he gives to his sales team, has gotten where he is by providing better service. He’s a slick salesman full of pick-up-artist-style mind tricks, like “if they offer you a choice of drink, always take the fanciest one.” The twist is, he’s not lying. He actually does want to provide a better product. And that, it turns out, is his problem. He can provide a superior product only because the game has been set up so that his competitors don’t have to. They’re a cabal of connected oligarchs and he’s just some dew-faced free market boy scout. It’s either a critical look at American capitalism or an honest look at the racket-based New York utilities market in the eighties (and probably now). Think a network of small-time Comcasts. Between his Hasidic creditors, an antagonistic black prosecutor (David Oyelowo), his mobbed-up Italian competitors, and his own crew of Irish salesmen and Latino drivers, it’s a rich tapestry, a beautiful melting pot filled with sharks all trying to buttf*ck each other. Which, deliberately mixed metaphors aside, I’m sure was the point.
Carefully creating and then maintaining the same kind of austere tension he did in Margin Call and All Is Lost, director JC Chandor’s work in A Most Violent Year is taut and compelling. And yet, there’s an oppressive sense of inevitability about the whole thing. Almost the entire movie, the other characters are constantly begging Abel Morales to just bend the rules a little bit, fight fire with fire – give your drivers guns, rough some people up, toss some bribes the right direction. The allure of retribution functions almost like sex in a horror movie. You just know if he takes his top off the monster’s going to get him. Chandor foreshadows the inevitable Bad Things Happening so much that a lot of the movie feels like being slowly dragged somewhere against your will.
The characters are all so perfectly-acted and fully realized, all the way down to the thugs hijacking Abel’s trucks, one of whom, brilliantly played by Christopher Abbot, Abel comes face to face with in a confrontation scene that’s absolutely fantastic. In just a few minutes of screen time, they illustrate a little-recognized truth: that retribution is never as cathartic or even as possible as you imagine it to be. Sometimes you catch the son of a bitch stealing your stuff red-handed like you always dreamed of, and just end up feeling kind of sorry for him.
The infuriatingly-close-to-perfection nature of A Most Violent Year is illustrated by the fact that it has almost no stock characters, but that’s a crucial “almost.” Think — what’s your absolute least favorite character in a gritty, urban, crime drama? The sniveling weasel from the protagonist’s childhood who ruins everything, right? A la Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village? That’s the only one who shows up in A Most Violent Year (played by Elyes Gabel). And Chandor doubles down on all of that character’s worst qualities – doomed, stupid, self-sabotaging, depressed. And characteristic of the entire film, Chandor follows up A Most Violent Year‘s worst moment with its best one, a bad stock character cliché, setting up a clever, insightful detail about its protagonist. I wish I could be more specific than that, but I don’t want to spoil it. I’m not some Santa Claus killer like JC Chandor.
In a lot of ways, A Most Violent Year is a story Robert Deniro’s character in A Bronx Tale would’ve told, the guy with no respect for gangsters and their fancy clothes. Movies have a way of glorifying the gangster types, like breaking the rules is some big accomplishment, but trying to make your way without screwing people over, that’s much harder. I love the attempt to create the anti-Scarface. The problem is, by being so unrelentingly serious, Scarface and A Most Violent Year end up delivering almost the same unintended message: that following the rules just isn’t much fun.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.