Movie review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year stuck with me long after I finished watching it: a crime drama that focuses on the psychological motivations of the main character.

The movie is set in 1981 New York City. Abel Morales owns a heating oil company and is looking to expand. He puts down money on an adjacent property that will give him water access to ship his oil rather than move it by tankers. The terms of the agreement: he has 30 days to come up with the rest of the money or the owners walk with his down payment.

Stressful but not a problem. A bank that he has worked with for years is supporting his venture. But the recent problems in the heating oil business are starting to heat up, converge, and threaten to bring down Morales and his company.

For a couple years, his drivers have been ambushed and attacked. The attackers have driven away with the tankers and sold the oil. In all, Morales has lost $213,000. (Remember, this is in 1981.) His drivers have been badly beaten and are scared to get behind the wheel. The leader of the teamsters who provides the drivers is threatening to pull them unless the drivers are allowed to carry guns.

Meanwhile, the DA is slapping Morales’ company with a number of serious charges. Morales and his wife scramble to check the books and make sure things are (mostly) in order. The bank is jumpy about investing while he and his company is under investigation. Morales meets with them. The deal is still on.

Then one of his drivers gets attacked and pulls a gun, firing shots at a toll plaza. All hell breaks loose. Morales is cutting deals with the DA and the police to turn in the driver. He is thwarted by the driver continuing to run.

The bank meets with him two days before the remainder for the adjacent property is due. They can no longer provide the loan—despite their long previous relationship.

A lesser man might have given up. Morales is driven by the fear of failure. He strikes unfavorable deals with different people to cobble together the funds, even negotiating a three-day extension to pay off the loan.

Morales operates in that gray area of legitimate business in a city and an industry that borders on the mafia. His guiding principle is to do “the most correct thing.” He struggles to remain free of encumbrances to the mafia. He almost falls victim but is saved by the shady actions of his wife, the daughter of a quasi-mafia figure.

She has been skimming money from the company, and offers it to her husband. He uses this money rather than a loan from a mafia-tied colleague. Clearly, “the most correct thing” is a hazy gray area that borders on criminal.

I watched A Most Violent Year because I was interested in seeing two actors in particular: David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks. David Oyelowo, who recently came from playing Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, is the DA out for blood—not nearly as meaty a role.

Albert Brooks plays the semi-legitimate, ever-present lawyer for Morales. Similar to how much of the business operations seemed just north of criminal, Brooks’ character seemed just on this side of legitimate practice, with a toe in the criminal side. I would never have suspected the lawyer was Brooks expect for his voice.

A Most Violent Year felt odd to me. I am still unsure how I feel about it. The acting is good. The story is of a self-made man who has a profound fear of failure. The movie made the top ten lists of critics, and won or was nominated for numerous awards.

The movie did keep me on the edge of my seat. I literally jumped and uttered a gasp in two places when things happened. If you enjoy crime drama with a grittiness about it, give A Most Violent Year a try.

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