There’s really not a great deal of violence in A Most Violent Year. Though set in 1981 New York City (a low period for the city marked by high crime rates), there are few visceral moments of bloodshed and brutality. What does exist is an almost constant threat of violence – around every corner and edit in the film, it feels as if some form of foul play sits in wait. The landscape of this version of New York City is bleak, crumbling and empty. The barren streets and rundown manufacturing plants aren’t exactly conducive to strolling about, but the lack of people in the background of the film gives you the feeling that they too are worried about those threats lurking in the shadows.
The real violence of the film, however, refers to the damage done to its main character’s (Abel Morales played exceedingly well by Oscar Isaac) view of the American capitalist framework and his moral approach to honest work resolving in honest returns. Morales wants to behave ethically – though he’ll take every advantage in marketing ploys, he doesn’t want to game the system or cheat his competitors. He feels he should reward those who succeed in his business (an oil company for home heating) and coach those who don’t in order to give them an opportunity to grow. Morales is a sharply dressed man with focus and drive that leads you to believe he WILL get what he wants. When he stares at you, you listen. He’s at a turning point in his business as he puts a huge down payment on a new parcel of land for expansion, but needs to come up with the rest of the capital to close the deal. He is warned up front by the old owners that they are happy to do business with him, but on their terms for their benefit. As Morales tackles problems of his trucks getting hijacked and being investigated for possible shady financial reporting, he struggles to gather up the remaining money needed to close the deal.