Film Review: A Most Violent Year

by Sam Robinson

Rated MA15+. Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo. Directed by J.C. Chandor.

If you could jump into the DeLorean and head to any location on earth at any point in time, where would you go? Well, after watching A Most Violent Year, I’d be pretty certain you wouldn’t transport yourself to New York City in 1981.

The early eighties was a dangerous time in NYC. It only takes a few moments in J.C. Chandor’s new feature, A Most Violent Year, to see that it’s basically a real-life Gotham City. Graffiti covers street walls, thugs point guns at the innocent in broad daylight, people fear for their lives, and beyond the terror of violence many are struggling to make ends meet.

Enter Abel Morales (Isaac), the hard-working owner of Standard Oil. With the assistance of his wife Anna (Chastain) he has built up his heating oil company and is ready to make a deal to purchase a neighbouring fuel oil terminal on the East River in order to expand the business and increase storage facilities.

But crime around the city is putting a strain on operations. The Standard Oil transport fleet keep getting held up and stolen at gunpoint, and drivers are being bashed ruthlessly. Oil is being stolen, assets are being damaged, and drivers are terrified. It’s certainly not ideal circumstances to work towards a thriving business. Increasing stresses, Morales is being investigated by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (Oyelowo) who has reason to believe that Morales has been cutting corners in his business, and may be guilty of tax fraud.

Chandor has crafted A Most Violent Year very well. The film has been styled to look as though it could be any other film from the early eighties, and it’s a delight seeing the fashion, the cars and even a digitally-enhanced NYC skyline to suit the era. Slow tracking shots move around scenes heavy in dialogue, and engages you in the drama.

There are also some edge-of-your-seat sequences (including a truly gripping rabbit-hole chase) and plenty of frights too. My main criticism of this film is the pacing of the action – at moments it moves very slowly – and at two hours in length this is felt quite often. But when the tension is high, the film commands your attention. Chastain is wonderful as the strong Anna, but I wasn’t quite convinced by Isaac’s take as hard-working Abel.

As dangerous as New York City is, watching this film I felt more pain and anguish by the decisions of its inhabitants: not just the crims stealing trucks and causing violence, but even the ‘good’ citizens such as Abel and Anna. Despite Abel’s efforts to be an honest man, he knows full well that he’s been cheating the law. He becomes so set on the pending property deal that he ignores the safety and welfare of his employees. We watch Abel and Anna spiral into despair over finances, yet they are unwilling to budge on the deal. As Abel hits rock bottom in crisis mode, it’s easy to ask the question, ‘What’s the way out?’ How are they going to reach the deal and save the company?

‘I feel vulnerable.’

There’s a few moments in this film that make you feel sick to the stomach. The main of these is scene in which a child finds a loaded handgun in the front yard of the house, and plays with it innocently, unaware of the danger. Adversely, the truck drivers are aware of the danger of driving around, feeling helpless and ‘vulnerable’.

This world is a mess. We are vulnerable creatures in a world infected by sin. It’s part of our DNA. If this world was perfect we wouldn’t need guns, we wouldn’t cheat on our taxes, we wouldn’t need police. Things may have improved in New York City since 1981, but the problem of sin remains, and it’s universal.

There’s only one solution: Jesus. He came into this crime-riddled world to serve, to love selflessly, and to give his life so that those who trust in him might live. He himself was sinless yet was beaten and mocked by sinful men, as we read in Luke 22:63-65:

“The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” And they said many other insulting things to him.”

Jesus knows what it’s like to feel vulnerable. He chose to enter into our fallen world, and he never retaliated with words or a weapon. He gave up his strength and authority to feel vulnerable on the cross, all in order to raise us up and allow us to live forever in a paradise where we will feel no vulnerability.

A Most Violent Year is a gripping film that helps us to think through what really matters on this earth, and for me, reminded me that Jesus is our comfort in despair. Be warned that there is some strong violence in this film. I’m giving it three-and-a-half stars.

A Most Violent Year will release in Australian cinemas Thursday 26th February; and is now screening in cinemas elsewhere.

For more film reviews from a Christian perspective, connect with Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

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