Image above: P from A mo (Image from official site)


The “most violent year” to which the title refers is 1981 in New York City, one of the worst on record. The milieu is the unexplored (and not-as-sexy-as-Prohibition) world of the heating oil business, apparently as mob-influenced as those bad old days in the 1920’s. The protagonist, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a fleet of trucks used to deliver heating oil all over the city. It is a gritty and cut-throat enterprise involving a lot of graft and corruption and he is looking to expand his business.


1900710_337587936425116_82699400491069515_oA still from A most violent year (Image from official site)


Abel is a cut above his colleagues in the business who are pretty rough around the edges. He is suavely handsome, beautifully groomed, well-dressed and mannered. He behaves like a gentleman, speaks deliberately and directly, and is very self-possessed. He does not betray his humble beginnings as an immigrant who began as a driver of one of the trucks which he now owns. He is determined not to give into thuggery and extortion and to take the high road. Could the name Morales be coincidental? Unfortunately, the heating oil industry is under investigation by an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) and the business which Abel now owns, comes with a past from which he cannot easily distance himself. He bought it from his father-in-law, a quasi-mobster, whose daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain), now married to Abel, has kept all of the books since before Abel took over and started to legitimize it. There are skeletons best left unearthed.

So things are pretty tense for Abel. He is being squeezed from all sides - creditors, brutal tactics from competitors, threats against his family, the law, and the temptation to get down and play dirty like everyone else - to level the playing field. All of the gangster/ noir-ish elements are in play - rundown industrial areas, decrepit warehouses, crumbling waterfront, construction sites, vacant lots. These are filmed in all of their gritty glory. The interior scenes are mostly shot in a murky gloom with no obvious light source such as lamps and little set lighting. I had moments of feeling as if I were looking at a computer screen from a bad angle. Maybe this is what happens when film noir is shot in color. Or maybe it is a metaphor for the gray area between right and wrong.

10904396_331805970336646_3811012270278378489_oA still from A most violent year (Image from official site)

In the face of all of this Abel never loses his cool or his temper. He does not rant or rage or act out. He shows empathy often. He faces down dangerous men with few words spoken quietly. Yet there are some moments when his cool seems like a chilly detachment - like when Anna finds a loaded gun outside their house and has an understandable meltdown. She wants to call in some of her father’s old cronies to fight back. He does not register anxiety or fear. He simply tells her “it will be alright”.

The director J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the story, has obviously done his homework about this particular era. It feels authentic. But it lacks energy. On the other hand, there is no scenery chewing, and that is a welcome relief. Abel is fighting for nothing less than his soul as he tries to navigate a seedy landscape with an uncompromising black and white world view - and still attain the American dream. He seems to have no doubts. The murkiness will protect him from too much clarity as he follows the path of the “most good”.

10918976_334804300036813_6109102613627034207_oA still from A most violent year (Image from official site)


Belle McIntyre

Harold Edgerton at Sikkema Jenkins Co.

banner for musee magazine no10 (feb 7 2015)