If, as Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived,” then Abel Morales, protagonist of writer/director, J.C. Chandor’s new film (finally in wide release) A Most Violent Year, is quite happy at the end of the movie. But Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) has given us a film so complex in its moral ambiguity that by the end we are not sure ourselves whether we should celebrate virtue triumphant or lament the irresistible flood of corruption that seems to engulf the five burroughs of New York in the winter of 1981—as the film’s title proclaims, one of the most violent in the city’s history.
Previews make Chandor’s work look like a gangster film, when it is anything but: It might be better called an anti-gangster film. Morales, played by an impressively understated Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is a Latino businessman chasing the American Dream: the CEO of the highly profitable Standard Heating Oil Company, he is about to lose the biggest deal of his career, a deal that will secure a large waterfront property that will give him vast storage capabilities, allowing him to buy oil when it is cheap and store it until its price goes up in winter. It will also give him the ability to bring his product directly to his tanks by sea, cutting his costs and increasing his profits. He will become king of his industry. He put his life savings into the down payment on the property, and has a month to secure the $1.5 million loan he needs to complete the deal. If he fails to come up with the remaining money, he will lose everything.
But things begin to unravel in Morales’ business. His drivers are being regulary hijacked at gunpoint and his oil stolen from him, thousands of gallons at a time. His salesmen are attacked by thugs working for his competitors when they make sales calls. Not only is he unable to get the assistant district attorney Lawrence (played by Selma’s David Oyelowo) to take any interest in these hijackings, he learns that Lawrence, who has been investigating the heating-oil industry, is about to bring charges against him for corruption, tax-evasion, and fraud, charges that he strongly, but politely, denies. To make matters worse, the bank that was to finance the remainder of Morales’s business deal becomes hesitates in the wake of the indictments.
There is a panicked, almost claustrophobic feel to the film as time passes, and Morales must fight off pressures from a teamster boss who insists on arming all of Morales’s drivers (with somewhat questionable permits) to prevent the hijackings—a step Morales feels will only escalate the violence; he must go hat in hand to rivals in his own industry to secure short-term loans with outrageous conditions attached, while at the same time trying to figure out which of three rivals is actually behind the harassment of his drivers, he has to prove his innocence of the criminal charges against him while his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) and lawyer (Albert Brooks) assure him that they have followed “standard industry practice” in all business dealings, with the unspoken implication that there probably are some not-completely-honest transactions that have gone on without his knowledge; and through it all he must strive not to succumb to Chastain’s goading him to “do something” to protect his business and family from those who do not scruple to use violence against him. Anna, the daughter of a Brooklyn mob boss, does not have Morales’s scrupulously honest instincts or his abhorrence of violence. She wants something done, and she wants it done now. “You’re not going to like what’ll happen if I get involved,” she warns.
The scenes between Anna and Morales are the most intense in the film. The tension between the two sometimes erupts into what can only be called abusive language on her part, though Morales maintains his controlled demeanor and projects, as he does in his public life, the demeanor of the reasonable, honest man. It is difficult to know whether this is all a front or whether he is in fact as honest as he purports to be. Chandor uses visual clues to make it difficult for us: Throughout the film, Morales is impeccably dressed in well-tailored suits, putting into practice what he tells his employees: “Have some pride in what you do.” But more significantly through most of the film he wears a long camel coat, identical to the one famously worn by Al Pacino in the Godfather II. Much in Isaac’s performance seems to channel Michael Corleone, but a Michael Corleone whose calm is not that of the unfeeling, calculating fratricide, but a Michael who resists the call of evil and preserves his own innocence. Or does he? A one point or other in the film, the Teamster boss (Peter Gerety), the Hassidic rabbi who sells him the waterfront property (Jerry Adler), and Morales’s own lawyer (Brooks) ask whether he fully understands what he is doing. The viewer must ask the same thing.
Morales tells the assistant D.A. late in the film that in all his business dealings, his chasing of the American dream, he has taken the way that is “most right.” But at another point, Anna laughs at him with bitter irony when he talks like this, implying that there have been plenty of times that underhanded things have been done that have got him to this place of power and influence. Some clearly have been done by her without his knowledge—though when he asks if his lawyer knew about one of these things, Brooks answers “Of course.” If Morales did not know, it seems clear he should have. Given some of the choices that he does make in the course of the film, when he says that he always did what was “most right,” he clearly means that he chose to do what was least wrong: he says in the film that it is failure he fears the most, and while his goal is not success at any cost, it is success at the least possible cost to his integrity. In the end, this film does not present us a clear and naïve depiction of good and evil. It demonstrates what happens to an essentially moral man driven to succeed in a business in which violence and corruption are the rule and he is the exception. The film is ambiguous, and we never know everything that perhaps we would like to about Morales and his business. But there is the feeling as the final credits role, that Morales’s contentment with his own integrity may simply be, as Swift might say, the product of his own self-deception.
For fine performances and a truly intelligent story, give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.