A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J. C. Chandor. Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, and Elyes Gabel. Distributed by A24, 2014. Rated R for language and some violence. Running time: 125 minutes.
Put yourself in the shoes of businessman Abel Morales, owner of Standard Heating Oil Company. The year is 1981, and you’ve just put 40 percent down on a waterfront property in New York City that will enable you to expand your business importing and selling fuel for oil-powered heating furnaces. You must pay the rest, $1.5 million, within a month, or you will lose both your down payment and the property. You’re relying on your reputation and your investors to meet the deadline.
Meanwhile, your competitors do not all play fairly, to put it mildly. Unknown assailants regularly steal your trucks at gunpoint, assault your drivers, and drain the fuel. And the violence is increasing—now including assaults on your salesmen and threats to your family. Your investors are getting nervous.
As if that weren’t enough, the government not only does nothing to protect you from such violence, it actively persecutes you based on vague and unsubstantiated claims of “corruption.” The district attorney complains that, given all the murders and assaults in the city, government cannot make the effort to keep your drivers safe; then he informs you that he’s spent two years preparing to pursue legal action against “the fuel industry,” and he is bringing charges against you alone. He all but admits that he has singled you out for special treatment, not because he knows you are guilty of violating the rights of others (as others in the industry certainly are), but because he thinks you’re an easy target.
On top of all that, some people close to you, lacking your sense of ethics and your courage in the face of adversity, take unwise and shortsighted actions that threaten to drag you further into legal hot water and insolvency. (I cannot share the details here without revealing too much about the film.)
So what do you do? Do you compromise your principles? Do you give up and sell out? Do you let violence set the terms of your existence? No. You are Abel Morales, and you will do everything in your power to maintain your integrity and persevere accordingly.
That a movie telling Morales’s story was even produced is remarkable, given that its hero is a morally virtuous businessman who sells oil—and given that businessmen broadly and oil producers specifically are widely demonized in today’s culture. To get a taste of how brazenly the film bucks the “businessman as villain” motif so common these days, consider this remark from Morales: “These men [the company’s truck drivers], they work for me. The trucks they drive, the customers they serve, it’s all here because I built this.”
Don’t let the title of the film mislead you. Although Morales faces violent actions by those seeking to disrupt his business, the focus of the film is on Morales’s thinking, planning, virtue, and discussions, not on the incidents of violence. (That said, there are a couple of bloody fights and a graphic suicide—this is not a film for young children.)
The film is brilliantly written and directed by J. C. Chandor, who builds tension expertly, mainly through the dialogue of his characters, especially Morales. And Oscar Isaac is absolutely the perfect actor to portray Morales. Isaac is riveting in practically every scene, whether Morales is conversing with an unscrupulous competitor in a barbershop, with the wife of an employee who has landed in trouble, or with his sales representatives.
Morales’s welcome-to-the-team speech to his sales reps deserves special mention. It is among the most memorable scenes of the film, and it shows how perfectly Chandor’s writing and Isaac’s acting mesh. Obviously I cannot fully convey the emotional impact of Isaac’s stylish delivery—that you’ll have to watch for yourself—but I can give a teaser of Morales’s remarks: “When you look [a customer] in the eye, you have to believe that we are better, and we are. But you will never do anything as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.”
The acting is outstanding throughout. Jessica Chastain portrays Morales’s wife, who is brilliant but somewhat affected by her past, growing up around organized crime. David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, and Elyes Gabel ably portray the DA, Morales’s attorney, and Morales’s employee, respectively. Although his is a minor and unlikable character, Peter Gerety puts in a memorable performance as the teamster who sets terms for the truck drivers.
In welcoming his sales team, Morales tells them, “After you’ve done the math and shown [potential customers] how much they can save over the long haul with proper maintenance, you need to get them to sign.” I have “done the math” regarding A Most Violent Year, and I’d like to get you to sign on and watch it. So imagine me looking you in the eye and telling you: This is a great film.