A Most Violent Year, or, OR IS IT?

Spoilers for A Most Violent Year ahead.

Basically Saw.

Basically Saw.

All I’m saying is, A Most Violent Year takes place over the course of like thirty days and has a total body count of one. Nobody loses a limb, nobody gets fed to nothing and the story doesn’t even make it to Valentine’s Day.


Watching the trailer for A Most Violent Year I immediately felt drawn in by the cast (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, c’mon already!) but I also felt discouraged by a preview for what seemed to me to be any other mob movie. Luckily, A Most Violent Year isn’t any other mob movie. On the contrary it’s a film about a man trying desperately to keep himself out of a mob movie, kicking and clawing to keep afloat in the seas of crime thrillers past.

Isaac plays Abel Morales, a businessman whose competitors are attached to the mob at the hip. Refusing to sink to violent methods himself, even in the face of the systematic armed robbery of his product, he has to cobble together a massive sum of money to close on a land deal that will significantly strengthen his grip on his own financial and professional fate.

The tension in A Most Violent Year isn’t derived from the prospect of a rat getting whacked or a turf war on the verge of explosion, it’s derived from Isaac’s performance as we watch a man live perpetually on the brink and wonder if or when he’ll succumb and take up arms himself. The primary conflict in A Most Violent Year is whether or not Abel, and the film with him, will finally give way and collapse into the trappings of every other mob movie.

In this regard A Most Violent Year’s organized crime thriller appearance is a strength, as it allows the film’s subversion of the genre to be all the more impactful. On the other hand, it’s called A Most Violent Year, it takes place over 30 days, and only one person dies. Even for a subversive crime drama the title can seem needlessly tricky. There are romantic comedies with a higher death count (The Notebook, Gangster Squad). Even the cinematography, beautiful, warm and cozy, betrays the film’s title.

But much as A Most Violent Year doesn’t allow itself to exist in the confines of a mob movie it doesn’t allow itself to reside in the New York of cinema either. It holds itself to the standards of everyday life, in which one violent death over an extremely tense and trying 30 day period would be more than enough for someone to consider their year most violent, even if the death wasn’t by piranhas or wood chipper.

If you go into A Most Violent Year expecting a most violent year you might find the stressful month it offers disappointing, but if you can get over being straight up title-clowned like an idiot A Most Violent Year offers something tense and fresh.

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