This is the story of Abel and his struggle against organised crime and the unions to make his fuel company a success. From this brief description it would seem to be a right wing story of the individual’s fight against “vested interests”. However, the film plays around with this common sense bourgeois morality and explores the inevitable corruption that a life lived according to capitalist ideals will lead to.
It is a gangster movie that isn’t a gangster movie. Abel is familiar with the world of organised crime but refuses to be a part of it.
This tension at the heart of the film is a little overplayed. Too much time is devoted to “just when I thought I was out…”-type agonising. The counterpoint to Abel’s ambition is the engrossing story of Julian, one of his workers, and the daily dangers he faces. The hypocrisy of a man who wants to make it for himself by putting others in danger is a refreshing perspective and hints at a level of class politics that has been absent from Hollywood cinema for a long time.
Indeed A Most Violent Year frequently references 1970s cinema, although it is all quite heavy handed and the purpose is not clear. It is set years after Mean Streets, Serpico, The French Connection, and so on, and yet can still get mileage out of being a period piece. These interesting ideas provide the basis for some gripping sequences but ultimately don’t go any further than the aesthetic level. They are never really rooted in the narrative or characters and so serve as a distraction rather than an enhancement.
The film gets bogged down and sags in the middle part. Too much time is spent drawing the central character in isolation from the rest. Despite very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, Abel’s relationship with his wife is lacking in tension and surprise. The dialogue is not particularly subtle and the film is mannered in places.
This is a shame; slightly more time devoted to Julian’s story would have greatly enhanced the film. There is no sense of the workers as a collective entity, there are no scenes of workers talking to each other as there are in Blue Collar (or even Alien!), only between worker and boss, or boss and union baron.
A Most Violent Year tells us a lot about where audiences are. Everyone is corrupt and it is taken for granted that everyone is corrupt. The unintended consequence of this is that the nature of corruption is not fully explored. Signposting class antagonisms in order to subvert the hackneyed trope of the individual’s battle against the odds makes the film worthwhile. It is hopefully a sign of more substantial works to come.