A Most Violent Year, directed by J.C.Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) takes place during the most violent year in 20th Century American History, with a record number of rapes, murders and criminality – specifically the New York winter of 1981. The film is about Abel Morales, an immigrant who, along with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is attempting to maintain his heating oil company within an environment of corruption and exploitation.
With cinematography by Bradford Young, the film has moments of pure artistry. One in particular being a scene where Abel’s wife takes control by shooting a quivering, dying deer that Abel accidently knocked over whilst driving. Here, the use of shadows and lighting creates an almost film-noir feel, with the deer lit solely by the moon and car lights. As we hear Anna Morales’ gun ring out, it signifies the strength of this woman who, in ‘femme-fatale’ fashion, refuses to be domineered by her husband and very much pulls the strings, even if it means having to lie, cheat and steal to protect her family.
As well as being an important historical snapshot reflecting the rise of Capitalism and the often disappointing nature of the ‘American Dream’ in the early eighties for many optimistic immigrants, the film also manages to subvert any expectations that may be held of the gangster genre. Despite obvious allusions to Goodfellas and The Godfather, the film avoids caricaturing its lead protagonist into a solely money-driven brute, but rather creates a nuanced depiction of a businessman trying to maintain his integrity, moral compass and pride – even when asking to borrow millions of pounds to escape a financial catastrophe.
Jessica Chastain has deservedly been nominated in the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Oscar category. She manages to completely re-invigorate the tired trope of the gangster’s wife with strength, virility and merciless determination, whilst still maintaining warmth towards her husband and a strong feminine sensuality.