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Film / A Most Violent Year

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The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.

Anna: My husband is not my father. Not even close. So if I were you, I would start treating us with a little more respect or I guarantee he will make it his mission in life to ruin you. This was very disrespectful.

A Most Violent Year is a 2014 American crime drama, directed by J.C. Chandor.

The year is 1981, already one of the most violent on record in New York City history. Relative to the abundance of murders, rapes, and robberies taking place in the city every day, the problems facing up-and-coming businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seem relatively minor — his company is growing steadily and he's negotiating a difficult deal for an oil terminal that will allow him to expand his business considerably. But when an unknown competitor starts hijacking his trucks at gunpoint, making off with thousands of dollars worth of oil, his problems get considerably bigger. Abel struggles to keep his business afloat in the face of legal troubles and an increasing number of hijackings, as the head of the NYC Teamsters pressures him to arm his fleet of drivers, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) grapples with her concerns for her family and her future.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: It galls him greatly, but when Abel's bank pulls out and he's unable to complete the purchase he travels round the city asking for more loans and for more time to put the money together.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Arnold Klein, the first of Abel's competitors to appear.
  • Ambiguously Evil: Peter is more friendly to Abel than any of his other competitors and claims to regret his dad's criminal past. During his final meeting with Abel, though, it's heavily implied that Peter does some mafia involvement himself, and he seems a bit dismissive of Abel during parts of their conversation. His telling Abel to sleep on his offer instead of outright committing him to a loan is an interesting decision, and keeps him out of Bitch in Sheep's Clothing territory though.
  • As You Know: Abel uses this when he finds out one of his competitors has been buying his stolen oil to remind him that the oil he's stolen is marked and would be easily spotted by the feds.
  • Ate His Gun: A distraught Julian shoots himself in front of Abel and Anna.
  • Behind Every Great Man: Anna manages all of Abel's personal accounts and is a shrewd businesswoman herself. This ultimately saves his skin in the shipping terminal deal, as she's been skimming enough money from his accounts and setting it aside over the years to cover what his loans cannot. Abel isn't pleased at her secrecy; she isn't pleased that he's been taking the credit for her hard work over the years.
  • Benevolent Boss: Morales positions himself as one of these, which means he takes the numerous attacks on his delivery truck drivers and sales representatives very personally.
  • Break the Cutie: Up-and-coming, fresh-faced Julian is brutally beaten and hospitalized in the course of doing his job. When he expresses his fears of a second hijacking to his employer, Morales reassures him and sends him on his way — only for a repeat performance to indeed occur on the road in broad daylight. But this time, Julian is armed as well, resulting in a shoot-out on the Queensboro Bridge that puts Julian on the wrong side of the law from his employer. He loses his job, is driven from his home, and eventually shoots himself.
  • Brutal Honesty: Abel’s attorney admitting he helped Anna prepare for a rainy day behind Abel's back.
  • Casting Gag: Oscar Isaac's character in Drive (2011) was called Standard, and here he runs Standard Oil.
  • Corrupt Cop: As soon as he figures out that how rich the purchase of the oil terminal will make Abel, Lawrence lays himself open to a bribe.
  • Crime of Self-Defense: Julian gets the police's wrath because he fought back against his hijackers, whom the police had been dragging their feet to investigate.
  • Determinator: Abel is an aggressive, serious-minded businessman who's determined to close on the oil terminal deal and to succeed as the better-quality option relative to his crooked competitors. Faced with the indifference of law enforcement, he ends up hunting down hijackers himself and eventually delivering an ice-cold ultimatum to those responsible.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Whatever else Abel may be, he is loath to equip his fleet of drivers with guns, due to the possible legal repercussions which he cannot afford.
  • Femme Fatale: Toyed with. Anna very much looks the part, with the opulent wardrobe, killer manicure, and dark personal secrets to suit. But she's a (relatively) happily married woman who relies very little on sex appeal to intimidate — her actual role is more like The Consigliere.
  • Greedy Jew: Averted. Joseph the seller does give Abel an extension despite earlier saying he wouldn’t and the Lefkowitz’s seem fair and avoid nepotism more than a lot of the others, giving Abel a limited loan with somewhat fair terms. Arnold Klein is a more unsavory character, although he's only Ambiguously Jewish and its hinted that his actions may be driven less greed than desperation given his implied struggles with bankruptcy.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: A relatively light shade thereof, for a crime drama; despite the title, the film's not especially gruesome. Abel is a more decent man than his competitors, but he's not above the sketchy dealings that are endemic to his industry. His closest allies are also sketchy at best.
  • Hide the Evidence: The police show up to search the premises during the middle of a child's birthday party. Anna and Abel excuse themselves to say goodbye to their guests, then scramble to hide file-boxes of tax records underneath their back porch.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: Abel personally pursues and beats a would-be hijacker, shocking bystanders. He manages to extract from him the possible location of whoever's been stealing the oil, but he still can't bring himself to harm him badly. In a more general sense, Abel seems to resist the use of violence as a matter of principle relative to his old school kneecap-breaking rivals in business.
  • Inspector Javert: Assistant DA Lawrence (played by David Oyolewo) who pursues Standard Oil and its competitors alike for a variety of offenses they've committed in the course of doing business — price fixing, tax evasion, and the like. Ultimately averted when the ending heavily implies he'll let Abel off the hook in return for Abel supporting his political ambitions.
  • Lady Macbeth: Anna is more than ready to step up and supply the gangsterism her husband seeks to avoid; she's the first to suggest resorting to threats, and is capable of ruthlessness even where her husband is not.
  • Little Useless Gun: Abel furiously derides the small handgun carried by Anna in her handbag — earning himself a slap in the face.
    Abel: "You know who uses guns like this? Whores!"
  • The Lopsided Arm of the Law: When Abel's trucks are being repeatedly hijacked and his drivers beaten, the police seem to be rather laconic about handling the issue. But when Julian fights back during the second hijack attempt, the authorities start gunning for him rather hard.
    • Somewhat justified in that New York is already in one of its most violent years on record, so the cops are probably not as concerned with the hijackings as the numerous murders and rapes occurring. Julian's firing the first shots in a gunfight also probably raised their interest as well, whereas the hijackers just pistol-whipped him rather than endangering anyone else on the highway.
  • Lying to the Perp: Possibly as a bluff, Abel convinces one of his competitors that some of the stolen oil is traceable, and the competitor then admits he has bought a consignment of it. Abel threatens him with police action to bully money out of him. The audience does not know what specific variety of oil was hijacked.
  • Mafia Princess: Anna's father was a gangster whose reputation seems to precede him. Her background seems to have influenced her negotiation style considerably.
    • Peter refers to being raised as a male version of this. it’s ambiguous if that’s the extent of it or if he he’s an actual criminal (it’s implied he is in his last scene but he could be lying either to keep Abel from doing something he'll regrets or to intimidate him)
  • Mama Bear: Anna. Go after her husband, and you'll regret it. Go after her kids, and God help you.
  • Meaningful Name: Abel Morales. Fittingly, he positions himself as the lesser of two evils compared to his competitors.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Averted (although maybe not from Abel’s point of view). The guy is reasonable and honest, getting into a legitimate deal, then backs out when the highway gunfight adds onto Abel's legal troubles and makes him look sketchy in the eyes of the bank, although he does apologize for it.
  • Morality Pet: Julian, to Abel. Abel has a rather paternal demeanor toward all his employees, and responds protectively after Julian is badly beaten and traumatized during a hijacking. This lasts only until Julian pulls his gun on another set of would-be hijackers and then flees the scene, putting himself beyond the reach of Abel's protection and alienating himself from his employer permanently and fatally.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Cutting Julian loose after the shoot-out on the bridge. If Abel had kept him around, he'd have endangered the terminal deal further and put himself in the distinctly unlawful position of protecting a fugitive — but firing him and turning him over to the hands of the police ultimately shatters Julian's already fragile mental health, resulting in his death. Given Abel's motto of always doing the most right thing, this possibility seems to weigh heavily on him.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance not at the point of an actual inheritance yet, but it's stated that once Sol does die, Lorraine’s father, his siblings and possibly any siblings or cousins she has were passed over for her due to Sol wanting to make sure he’d avert an unworthy successor situation.
  • Pink Mist: The more conventional Gory Discretion Shot of blood splattered on the wall of an oil tank, mingled with a stream of leaking oil, is preceded by a much more gruesome view of Julian's brains getting blown out in lots of little pieces.
  • Police Are Useless: The police don't do much to stop the hijacking of Abel's trucks, and only leap into action when Julian fights back against his attackers (and focus more on Julian than the actual attackers).
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Servidio, the bearded hijacker. He robs Abel's trucks and assaults Julian, but when Julian's firing a gun sends them both running form the police he gives Julian some brief advice about how to avoid them, and he later tells Abel who he sold the last load to in gratitude for Abel sparing his life even as Abel was walking away and making no further threats to him.
  • Race Against the Clock: Abel has 30 days to secure $1.5 million to purchase the shipping terminal. He very nearly fails, due to Julian's breakdown and the charges levelled against his company.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After Abel is furious at Anna revealing she's been skimming money to buy the oil terminal, she delivers one of these to him on how he's been to wrapped up in his own success to acknowledge her keen business acumen. By the morning he's swallowed his pride and admits it's the right course of action. See Behind Every Great Man above.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Abel Morales is always dressed impeccably well.
  • Scenery Gorn: The cinematography is achingly gorgeous. The graffiti-coated, decaying landscape of early 80s NY is not.
  • Shoot the Dog: At one point, driving after dark, Morales strikes a deer with his car. Anna insists he puts the animal out of its misery with a tire iron. When he can't finish the job, Anna puts a bullet in its head.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: Anna Morales is a drop-dead-gorgeous smoker.
  • So Proud of You: Downplayed but implied with Abel’s reaction to his brother being curious about what he wants to do instead of blindly signing the papers. Noted in the commentary.
  • Was Too Hard on Him: Abel prides himself on being rigorous and upright, always seeking to pursue "the most right thing", but he seems to doubt himself in his response to Julian's breakdown.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out who was outside his house with a gun, and who attacked one of his salesmen.
  • Women Are Wiser: Lorriane, at least inside her family.