This is first and foremost a film about the American Dream. Set in New York in 1981, one of the most crime-ridden years on record, we are presented with businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has steadily worked his way up from impoverished truck driver to owner of Standard Heating Oil Co. And in the competitive oil business, Abel’s trucks are under attack. Someone has hired two guys to hold the truck drivers up and steal the trucks, and then redistributing and reselling the stolen oil.
In a classic fight against moral decline vs. financial gain, Abel is determined not to turn to violence to overturn his predicament. He refuses to allow the truck drivers to carry guns in fear of falling into the gangster lifestyle that his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), grew up in. But morals are often tested when one has a gun to their head.
J.C Chandor has weaved an interesting tale here. In the greed and glory of the 80s, in business, anything went, and Abel Morales is no boy scout. He is ambitious to the point of insanity and his character is heavily flawed but he does have strong convictions and an unfailing desire to prove himself as a contender in the oil business. Morales often comes across as cold and unrelenting, often choosing his own agenda over the welfare of his employees but this makes his more vulnerable moments hit harder. He is a man with a dream who will stop at nothing to get it and only on his own terms. He does have a bit of a ‘I’ll just close my eyes and it will go away’ approach to conflict, claiming he ‘will handle it’ but his idea of handling it is in strong opposition to Anna’s, which makes for great tension between the married couple. In fact, the relationship between these two provides the backbone of the film and some of the most interesting scenes to watch.
This is a very simple story complicated by personal agendas, greed and politics. It’s the story not just of a man in crisis, but of a nation in crisis. And it is the strong performances that not only carry this film but lend it credibility. Chastain and Isaac are spot on in their roles, matching each other blow-for-blow as the stakes forever increase, Albert Brooks lends a quiet strength to his role of the family lawyer and Elyes Gabel, the victim of one of the truck attacks, brings a raw desperation to his role that will make you squirm.
For a film titled A Most Violent Year, I was expecting more violence. However, what it could have really used more of was brightness. It is a bleak film but in many ways still oddly inspiring, encouraging its audience to stay true to themselves and their values, to take the path that is most right despite all odds.