DVD Review: A Most Violent Year

Let us first address the title. It’s misleading. At least, it leaves one with the wrong impression. This movie is not violent … not very, anyway. It was the year that was most violent.

The year was 1981, the place was New York City. It was, as the title states, a most violent year: record numbers of murders, assaults, muggings, truck hijackings and all the rest.

In this year and in this city, a most motivated Latino immigrant, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), fights to protect and grow his home heating oil business. What? Home heating oil? Not heroin or cocaine? Nope. Keep in mind that all kinds of commodities and services have been targeted by criminals. Think garbage hauling on Long Island.

Anyway, Abel’s business is oil and he wants to make a major move by purchasing his own depot. And he wants to do it the hard way: honestly. Though the competition beats up his drivers and steals his trucks, he won’t allow his guys to carry guns, nor will he own one himself. He’s not quite a Boy Scout — his books are a little dodgy and the DA’s thinking of bringing charges. But he’s hanging onto values that the other guys (including the DA) dumped while they were still in high school.

The movie is one long polemic about morality. Abel is determined to be an honorable man. As is so often the case with a man determined to take the high road, he walks alone. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a gangster, thinks he’s dreamer and a doofus. But he’s also a brave man, afraid only of failure. He’s very fit and, when provoked, dangerous.

J.C. Chandor, who directed the claustrophobic but excellent “Margin Call” (2011), is known for intelligent, thought-provoking films. There’s no gratuitous violence and zero sex, absences that will make for tedium in some quarters. But there’s plenty of plot, action and criminal intent in this remarkable and rare character-driven movie.

It doesn’t hurt that Oscar Isaac is drop-dead handsome as well as a fine actor. His intelligence and reflective nature bring to mind Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Elyes Gabel as Julian, a nervous immigrant oil truck driver who has been severely beaten by the bad guys. His suffering is ever on Abel’s mind, and Abel has a lot on his mind: violent competitors, an ambitious DA, the loss of all of his savings if he can’t raise the dough to conclude his depot purchase. But foremost is his determination to be decent. Is he Don Quixote or Don Corleone?

Good question. Good movie. Highly recommended.


Stephen Fay

Stephen Fay

Managing Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Fay, managing editor of The Ellsworth American since 1996, is a third-generation Californian. Starting out as a news reporter in 1974, he has been an editor since 1976, working in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont before settling in Ellsworth with his wife and two daughters. [email protected]

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