A Most Violent Year
Produced by Before The Door Pictures 
and Washington Square Films
Directed and written by J.C. Candor
Distributed by A24

I went to J.C. Chandor’s new film A Most Violent Year with high expectations.  His first, Margin Call, was simply the best cinematic examination of the 2008 banking crisis we’ve had to date: literate, moving, funny, and, above all, convincing.  His second film, All Is Lost, was something of a stunt—a nearly wordless drama of a lone rich man navigating his high-end sloop through the harrowing of the Indian Ocean gone mad.  Both films examine how wealthy, accomplished people respond to extraordinary stress.  This is not a new theme, certainly, but what distinguishes both movies is Chandor’s nearly pitiless reflection on where hubris leads.

A Most Violent Year explores the same theme.  As with his earlier films, Chandor displays a tact and discipline uncommon to the screen, but this time his story seemed to me overly buttoned down.  When I first watched it, I concluded that it suffered in virtue of its own restraint.  On a second viewing, however, I changed my mind.  Yes, the film could be more exciting, but its quietness was integral to its drama.  Its central characters have navigated themselves into a cultural sea change in order to reach what they perceive to be upper-middle-class success.  This requires them to divest themselves of the ethnic attributes of their Hispanic and Italian heritages.  They must impose upon themselves a studied control of their normal inclinations.  Hence the self-regarding quietness of their behavior in social settings.  I suspect this is a personal theme for Chandor, who grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, the son of a Scots-Irish mother and an Indian father.

In telling the story of a small businessman under attack by both criminals and competitors, Chandor goes out of his way to avoid the clichés other filmmakers freely indulge.  His protagonist, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), displays a Job-like forbearance in the face of enormous provocations.  He’s the proprietor of a heating-oil delivery service named, suggestively enough, Standard.  After years of hard work and discipline, he’s about to enter the big time.  He’s purchasing a terminal on the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan that will enable him to buy and store much more oil than he ever has before.  He’s poised to lock up a good deal of his market.  Understandably, his success has made other delivery services in his region nervous.

Then he missteps.  His terminal is to be a huge warehouse on the river owned by an Hasidic rabbi, an elderly bearded man whose gentle eyes and soft voice don’t quite disguise his granite heart.  As Abel discusses terms, the rabbi wonders why he wants to buy rather than to lease the warehouse.  Abel pauses and answers quietly that he likes to own what he uses.  The rabbi nods his head knowingly and then reminds Abel of the terms of their agreement he’s about to sign.  Abel will put up 40 percent of the cost now, and the rest at the closing 30 days later.  If for some reason he cannot produce the balance in cash on the stipulated date, the rabbi will keep the 40 percent and then cheerfully sell the terminal to one of Abel’s competitors.  Before you can call out, “Don’t sign that damned paper, you idiot,” the film cuts to one of Abel’s truck drivers as he comes under assault.  Two thugs are about to hijack the 6,000 gallons he’s driving to Abel’s customers.  It doesn’t stop there.  Other hijackings follow.  The local Teamsters’ representative begins to demand Abel arm his drivers with pistols; otherwise, the union will have no choice but to pull his men off the job.  Abel balks, saying that violence only begets violence.

Things, as you can imagine, will get worse.  Abel’s once-friendly competitors no longer seem so friendly.  When he meets them, they speak in guarded tones.  They may even be sponsoring the hijackings.  A few nights later, Abel finds a thug lurking outside the front door of his new Bauhaus-styled suburban home.  After he chases the goon away, he tells his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) that the fellow was merely a would-be thief, but she doesn’t buy it.  She’s the daughter of the man who formerly owned Standard, a tough Italian with Mafia connections.  Given her antecedents, it’s not surprising when Anna tells Abel that, if he doesn’t accede to the union’s demand, she will have to intervene herself.  “That’s something you don’t want to see,” she adds ominously.  And we believe her, especially when we discover, to our surprise and to Abel’s horror, that she’s armed herself with an automatic and demonstrates she’s quite capable of using it.  She’s a tough cookie, as they used to say.  As the days go by, there are more hijackings, and Abel’s banker cancels the loan he had offered for the purchase of the terminal.

Then, as if on an Old Testament schedule, the next plague descends in the form of an ambitious assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) who’s itching to investigate Abel’s business.  He knows how the industry operates, and that most truckers can’t stay afloat unless they cut some corners, whether through price fixing or tax evasion.  This makes Abel a likely target.

Chandor never directly addresses Abel’s determination not to resort to violence.  We’re left to infer that it’s of a piece with his desire for upward mobility.  Pummeling and shooting foes is not the preferred method for moving into the upper class.  Still, when push comes to shove, Abel is willing to turn Cain and clobber a stooge who has stolen one too many of his trucks.  Doing so, he reveals he’s not quite the law-abiding citizen he advertises himself to be in his tailored double-breasted suits and camel-hair topcoat.

With his mournful dark eyes and charming smile, Guatemalan-American actor Isaac plays Abel as an exceedingly deliberate man who’s convinced himself he knows the right way to do things.  His performance is as meticulous as the studied sales pitch he uses on his prospective clients—the same pitch he coaches his representatives to use.  The key, after making your presentation, is to stare at the prospective customer longer than is comfortable for both him and you.  This puts the customer off balance.  He feels he must do something for you.  Done correctly, that something will evolve into his signing a contract.  This technique works on the audience, too.  It’s difficult not to be drawn to Abel’s side, even after you discover he’s not quite the honorable man he’s convinced himself he is.

As Anna, Chastain changes gears from her earlier roles, which have generally required her to convey delicacy and even fragility.  Here she is every bit as determined as her husband, although she hides her steeliness behind an odd counterbalance of Armani couture and a gum-chewing Brooklyn swagger.  She is the perfect arriviste, at once enticingly beautiful and dauntingly formidable.  You can tell this by the way she uses the eraser end of her pencil to punch numbers on her adding machine.  Behind her carefully arranged décolletage, she’s a broad who means to do business without breaking her perfectly polished nails.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Albert Brooks has unkinked his hair to play Abel’s Irish lawyer, Walsh, a man content to admit he’s something of a gangster; Peter Gerety delivers his lines with an insinuating, whiny growl common to arm-twisting Teamster foremen.  And as the scheming assistant D.A., Oyelowo neatly brings home the film’s title, which refers to the story’s temporal setting.  When, early in the narrative, Abel comes to him with his hijacking complaints, he wearily puts the trucker’s problem in perspective by marshaling the staggering number of murders and rapes currently being committed on his watch.  It’s 1981, a year during which New York City could boast of 2,166 murders and 5,479 rapes.

Can we blame Anna and Abel, proud parents of three young daughters, for their capitalist desire to climb above this perilous morass and leave their peers behind?  More to the point, will they succeed and, if so, at what cost?