When I first heard the Modest Mouse lyric "Life gave us a paycheck / we said "we worked harder than this!" I was in my early twenties, and I respected that line for being clever. However, that was before I had earned very many paychecks. Now that I'm a decade into the slog of adulthood I find it pretty hard to see the humor in that sentiment. Now when I think about all the work I've put in, and what I've gotten in return - well, to be honest with you I just feel a little bitter and depressed. I'm not saying that my life is bad, but I do feel like it should have turned out better, whatever "better" means.
Which means that in theory I should have loved A Most Violent Year. After all, it is about a man named Abel who is similarly getting ripped off by life. Abel has worked his way up in the heating oil business, and he finally has enough capital and connections to strike out on his own, but everywhere he turns he is getting squeezed by an another asshole. One of his competitors keeps hijacking his oil trucks. The Unions are extorting him for money he doesn't have. The Feds are sniffing around his financial records, trying to catch him laundering money for the mob. Abel is trying to do an honest job, and he seems like a capable person, one that most people respect, but he just can't catch a break, and it is killing him.
But even though I should be able to empathize with Abel's problems, the opposite actually happened. The farther I got into the movie the more I found myself actively disconnecting from its story. It wasn't because A Most Violent Year is badly done; I could easily see that the script was well paced, the acting was subtle and nuanced, and the direction was surehanded. So why was there such a disconnect? Well, it is because popular entertainments have to walk a thin line between attempting to provide catharsis and indulging in escapism. They have to be able to speak to our everyday lives so they aren't impenetrable and alienating; they also have to elevate themselves past the sort of trivia that defines our everyday lives so they avoid being mundane and depressing.
Unfortunately, A Most Violent Year falls a little too hard on the depressing side of that divide.
A Most Violent Year should have worked, because Abel's problems are right on the edge of being absolutely relateable and being larger-than-life. I've been under pressure before, but I've never been under competitor-union-cop levels of pressure. However, it didn't matter to me why Abel was stressed; all that mattered to me was that he was constantly on the edge of a panic attack. I've felt that dread before, and there was nothing magical about it... And thus this movie had no magic for me; I just didn't want to be reminded of what suffocation feels like.
Of course, you mileage may vary depending on your relationship to anxiety. In fact, I might have really enjoyed this movie at a different time in my life when I had a different relationship to anxiety. When I was graduating from high school and was just starting to engage with your Coppolas and your Scorseses I would have really appreciated this film's throwback charms. (It was released in 2014, but it looks and feels like a 70's auteur driven character drama.) And it might have even been good for me to engage with a mature film like this back then; at that time I needed art that was going to prepare me for what lay ahead. But I'm not that young person any more, and that all consuming uneasiness is no longer abstract for me. Now I'm already in the thick of it, and I need movies that do the opposite - movies that transport me back to my younger days, back when I was more carefree.
Of course, I'm not such a philistine that I only want to watch escapist movies - but at this point in my life I do need my entertainment to actually make some effort to entertain me. Unfortunately, A Most Violent Year doesn't want to give you any sugar to help the medicine go down easier. It is relentlessly humorless, and I have never liked movies that have all the room in the world for tension and no room at all for comic relief. If A Most Violent Year had taken the Modest Mouse route and covered up it's darkness with a bit of clever phrasing I might have willingly given myself over to it. But to ask me to return to an emotional state I despise, and to ask me to wallow in that dread for two hours, and to never even do me the favor of giving me a single smile? At this point in my life I'm just not gonna do that. I've done that work before, and I wasn't happy with the size of the paycheck I got at the end.
Winner: The Cat