Review: A Most Violent Year and Memories of New York
I had a favorite t-shirt when I was 12 years old. I wore it as often as possible and it was a t-shirt that only a 12-year old could really love. The t-shirt was black and had the words “Welcome to New York” scrawled on it. Below this salutation, there was an image of a chalk body figure, the kind that police use when sketching out murder and accident scenes for where the body fell.
The truth is that this vision of New York was probably already disappearing by the time my parents bought this shirt for me and they bought it in already expensive SOHO. The truth is that I don’t really have any memories of the bad, old days in New York. I was alive during the time but very small. We did go into the City when I was young for cultural events and just plain old shopping and walking around but I think we often drove in. I can’t remember how old I was when I was on the subway for the first time and whether it was covered in graffiti or not. I don’t even remember when the subways began getting cleaned up. There were plenty of old subway trains still in service when I was a young adult and going to New York frequently or living in it from 18-28. I have plenty of memories about being in a jam-packed subway without air conditioning on a very humid summer day (it isn’t pleasant). But I probably could fear getting accidentally hit in the face by an acrobatic, break-dancing busker shouting “it’s showtime” over actually getting jumped and beaten up.
A Most Violent Year does take place during the bad, old days of New York and it does so with a minimum amount of nostalgia but not exactly saying that New York is better now either. In many ways it is elegiac about the old New York while acknowledging the horrible violence. The movie takes place during the start of 1981. 1981 would prove to be the most violent year of New York City history so far.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a first-generation American who rose from being a truck driver to owning his own heating oil company that he purchased from his father-in-law. He is proud but sensible person who is trying to be relatively ethical in an industry that seems populated by quasi-gangsters or people willing to resort to extra legal tactics against their competition. He is also represents a changing of the guard but not really. The old guard were mainly Jewish and Italian first-generation immigrants. They became successful and were able to send their children to college and their children became respectable professionals and don’t want to get their hands dirty (both ways). Morales is trying to do the same thing for his daughters and we see his family purchase a modern looking mansion in a respectable suburban area like Westchester or Connecticut. Morales is also proud that he can send his much younger (and even more Americanized) brother to an expensive university or prep school (the kid could be a high school senior or a college freshman, it was hard to tell). Though this scene reveals that Morales potentially did not come from completely poor circumstances.
Morales is trying to be clean in that he does not want to resort to violence like his competitors do without any after thoughts or qualms. On the other hand, Morales does not have any moral or ethical problems with training three squeaky-clean white kids in the finer arts of making a sale via deception and a bit of intimidation via psychology. He teaches his young college-graduate employees how to use a hankerchef to make an oil burner seem dirty and polluted. He also tells them to always pick the most expensive food or drink item they are offered by potential clients because it is a way of intimidating through class-consciousness, tea > coffee and home-made lemonade > soda.
All is not well though. He (and the rest of the industry) is being investigated by an ambitious assistant district attorney who wants to make a name for himself by cleaning up a corrupt industry. There is also the fact that someone keeps highjacking his trucks and siphoning off the oil. He is trying to close a deal for a series of oil tankers on water-front property and needs to raise 1.5 million dollars in 30 days or he is ruined and loses everything including his entire savings.
The onscreen violence is rare and always hits more like an unexpected explosion than a slow sense of dread. Most of the violent crime we here about is literally radio chatter in the background and I think this is good and shows a more realistic version of what it was like to be in New York City during the very violent 80s. A more typical Hollywood movie would have played to suburban fears and made it more like Escape from New York and have crime be everywhere and all the time.
The cast is completely excellent. Oscar Isaac does well as Morales and is doing a complete 180 from his last big role as the clueless jerk who could never catch a break in Inside Llewlyn Davis. Albert Brooks continues his transformation from playing schlubby nerds to more serious dramatic roles and his almost hard to recognize with straightened hair. Jessica Chastian does great as Morales’ wife and sparing business partner. She is a gangster’s daughter (with all the situational ethics that go along with this distinction) but also the numbers person in the business. David Oyelowo completes the cast as the assistant district attorney with ambitions for higher office.
A Most Violent Year is really about the changing of the guard in many ways. Formally dominant groups being replaced by their newer arrivals. The movie director (Chandor) does a great job at showing how some of the attacks directed at Morales could be racially motivated without it being completely over-the-top. Everyone treats Morales as an equal and someone to respect business-wise but that doesn’t mean they are going to give him the kid gloves or stop from their old gangster tactics. The realization that the violent New York of 1981 does not need to be the New York of tomorrow. Oyelowo’s ADA realizes that it can be big for if Morales can purchase the unused oil tankers and get them operational again. It will be big for Morales, big for Brooklyn and big for Oyelowo’s ADA as a future elected official. The realization that businesses can go from being quasi-criminal to legitimate.