Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel Morales says near the end of “A Most Violent Year.” Is it fair, then to still call it a gangster movie? Because even though there’s nary a mafioso in the film (there are one or two just offscreen,) everything about this film — from the cinematography to the storyline — makes it the best gangster film released this year.
To begin with, Isaac’s performance is reminiscent of Al Pacino in “Godfather Part II.” It is mannered, carefully controlled, and scary. He is intentional with his words and rarely raises his voice, or needs to. When he does finally explode, the scene is a mirror image of the Michael and Kay scene in “Godfather Part II” where Michael finally explodes (the abortion scene.) Except in that scene, Kay is taking away the kids because Michael has become a gangster, and in this one, Chastain is making a different set of choices, because Abel won’t become a gangster.
He’s a legitimate businessman (which, of course, is what they all say.) He is aggressive in growing his business, he’s not afraid to take risks, but he stays within the bounds of the law — at least, as much as any of his competitors do. There is a definite sense of moral/legal grey areas in Abel and the way he conducts his business, but he draws a sharp line when it comes to violence. Even when his trucks are being robbed, and his salesmen ambushed by thugs, and his family threatened.
I think it might be easy to miss, but Abel’s struggles to not respond violently, to not become a gangster, aren’t grounded in morality. As the movie unfolds, it’s clear he has made a number of immoral choices in the running of his business (and he willingly makes a deal with the devil at the very end.) He doesn’t want to become a gangster because it’s bad for business. It’s the easy way to solve his problems, but the way that will cost him most in the end. He is the consummate capitalist, and violence is bad for business.
There has always been, in the best gangster movies, a tacit indictment of capitalism itself, a sense that what men like Michael Corleone do isn’t really any different from what men like Gordon Gekko do. Maybe that’s why “A Most Violent Year” feels like a gangster movie. For Abel, the line between being a businessman and a gangster is hard and fast. But to us watching (and, perhaps, even to his wife,) it might as well be imaginary.
–This is director JC Chandor’s third film, and all three are drastically different, and all three are good movies “(the other two are “Margin Call” and “All is Lost”) It’ll be interesting to see what he does next.
–I don’t understand the deal at the heart of this movie, and it almost spoiled it for me. Why would you make a down payment on a property 30 days before you sign the loan agreement with the bank? Is this normal in the business world? It seems foolish.