Let’s get the obvious out of the way: A Most Violent Year, despite the menacing (and irritatingly pretentious) title, actually isn’t all that violent. Violence surrounds its setting (New York, circa 1981), plot, and characters, but it’s never actually shown all that much. Instead of gory, Tarantino-esque action, the film firmly roots itself in slow, gritty crime drama, which really pulled me in at first. All the more frustrating, then, that it had just as much weighing it down as it did lifting it up.
Even more frustratingly, the first half is actually really compelling, and sets up a story that has some serious potential. Abel Morales, the competitive owner of a small-heating oil company, starts getting pressured to illegally arm his workers after a series of brutal truck hijackings, which he refuses on account of getting caught by the authorities. Meanwhile, his competitors start harassing him in increasingly aggressive ways, including jumping him at his own home and leaving a loaded gun in the bushes, which his youngest daughter plays with until Morales’s tight-lipped wife, Anna, arrives on the scene.
All of this is beautifully shot, with stylized green and blue tints building a wonderfully taut, Fincher-esque atmosphere. Plus, some scenes are genuinely gripping and nerve-wracking, like when one of Abel’s workers does pack a gun on a routine delivery trip, gets in a shootout with some nasty goons, and finds himself running down the highway from an entire police squad as a result. So what exactly could my problem with this movie be?
It’s simple: Abel himself. He’s not unlikable per se (when that’s done right, it can actually work really well), but he’s thoroughly uninteresting (OK, that’s a serious problem) and resembles a standard “Al Pacino” type far too much. At no point did I feel any sympathy, anger, or any other emotion for him, which fatally dragged down my investment in everything going on.
For a while, I desperately tried to ignore this, and deliberately concentrated on the parts of the film that did work. However, as it gradually started puttering out past the hour mark, I was soon forced to realize that it wasn’t a really solid movie with some major flaws, but a painfully mixed bag with some great aspects, and some very, very weak ones. At this point, only the ending delivers a genuine jolt, though if I cared about any of the characters involved, the effect of it would have definitely been much greater.
I have heard others (namely, my own local newspaper) accusing A Most Violent Year of borrowing too much from The Godfather Part II. Having not yet seen that particular film (or its predecessor, for that matter), I can’t offer my own opinion on that, but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. As Godfather clones go, however, it’s certainly above-average. Indeed, there is so much I like about this film that it seems wrong to give it such a sharply mixed rating (in fact, I’d at least be giving it a 7 if Abel was written a little better), but here we are.