Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"A Most Violent Year": low-key mob drama about an "ethical" gangster in the early 80s


There is a scene a third the way through “A Most Violent Year” (directed by J. C. Chandor) where newcomer Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), driving at night with his wife (Jessica Chastain) hits a deer.  He thinks for a moment that it’s a bullet.  I recalled one of my most dangerous close calls recently:  driving back from Shenandoah National Park in the late fall in the dark on US 211 (not a good idea), I saw a deer on the road at the last moment, slammed on the brakes, and missed it.  I didn’t lose control, but people often do. 
  
The rest of the dangers in this movie are manmade.  The early part of 1981, about the time Reagan took office, was one of the most violent times in New York City’s history.  I had lived in Manhattan from 1974 through the end of 1978.  It has boomed since I left, partly because Giuiliani’s “broken windows” police policy and because some of the corruption has been cleaned up.
  
Morales, to make it in the City, has no choice but to play along with the corruption and crime family control “On the Waterfront” as he tries to build a heating oil business.  The orange and green trucks populate the screen, in what is otherwise a sepia winter landscape around docks, tunnels and warehouses.  Why should consumers in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx depend on a crime-family business just to buy heating oil for their homes?  Is that how it was then?  Morales hires kids to sell door-to-door, and one of the kids gets kidnapped leaving and dumped in a landfill, alive, to teach him a lesson.  A bigger problem is that drivers are gunned down or carjacked.  A major plot thread concerns the determination of one driver (Elyes Gabel) to arm himself (as a Second Amendment matter) and that leads to a major incident on a bridge over the East River. 
  
The biggest problems for Morales, though, is dealing with the local district attorney, just starting to clean up the mob (at his own risk) and most of all loan sharks, as he gets in deeper, needing to get land access to the waterfront at one point around the Rockaways in order to survive competitively. He wants to do the right things, and even resists carrying a gun himself.  In one scene the family cat almost saves him.  
    
The film seems to be well received, although it is smaller in ambition that the “godfather” films of the past.  But mob violence is no longer entertaining as it once was.  Today, we all take it seriously.

But the film honors the conventions of screenwriting, making us empathize with a "good gangster" who has little choice, putting him in jeopardy, and making us root for him. To bad the kids' birthday party gets broken up by the NYPD.

To make it in his world, you had to compete socially and take care of your own, even if you had to skirt the law.  Thankfully I wasn't raised in this environment.

The action in the film happens just before the first cases of AIDS would be reported in New York.  That was a dangerous year in other ways.
       
  
The official site is here.  A24 has started releasing bigger films, it seems.  Production companies include Washington Square and FilmNation.
   
I saw this at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA before a small weekday crowd.
    
Picture: The Rockaways, my visit, March 2013 (after Hurricane Sandy).  


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