One thing The Godfather films failed to show us was any attempt on Michael Corleone’s part to actually take his father’s business and make it a legitimate enterprise. A Most Violent Year gives us an impression of what it might have looked like if he did. Abel Morales is on the verge of expanding his oil business by purchasing a site in the New York City docklands. The only problem is that it’s 1981, statistically the most crime ridden year in New York’s history, and his legal business has become the target of hijackers and thieves.
The Godfather reference is not arbitrary, and indeed Oscar Isaac is heavily channelling Al Pacino in his performance. Also, the period piece nature of the film seems to have been designed to take place at some vague time in the past rather than 1981 specifically as the story requires. It feels heavily indebted to Mad Men’s trend-setting period style, and instead of the gritty urbanism necessary to capture the ugliness of the city’s crime problem, we get a very polished look throughout, which owes itself more to Madison Avenue than the New York docks.
Polished is the word for A Most Violent Year. It’s marvellously easy on the eyes, and maintains a consistent strain of suspense throughout, as horror movie-style jump scares are offset by moments of tension which never erupt, but linger on to the following scene. At the centre of it all is the character of Abel Morales, unbending in the face of remarkable adversity. Writer and director JC Chandor undoubtedly subscribes to the school of character writing which involves throwing everything at the protagonist, making them suffer to show the audience what they’re made of.
The problem with this angle is that characters can do two things when faced with insurmountable odds; they can give in or they can fight against them. This becomes like a cinematic high striker, measuring a character’s moral strength – how far can they get on the tenacity scale? But it doesn’t particularly allow for nuance. As we’re told repeatedly and explicitly, Abel Morales will succeed at almost any cost, but he won’t break the law. You believe him most of the time, and you sort of care, but it never goes beyond this. This film is always just the sum of its parts.
As a study of how difficult it can be to follow the law when criminals as well as law enforcers have you in their sights, A Most Violent Year is a success. It feels polished and artificial, but there’s a vision behind it which is admirable. It’s rare in cinema to be presented with a character as cold and hard as Abel Morales who never does anything that an audience would consider morally reprehensible. He’s Scarface without the guns and the cocaine; an immigrant looking to stake his claim on the great Capitalist empire. But unlike Tony Montana, Abel Morales doesn’t inspire. We admire him but we don’t care about him like we do the Cuban gangster. Perhaps that says as much about Chandor’s film as it does about his audience.
In cinemas 23 January 2015. Watch the trailer here.