It's an All-American story -- poor but honest immigrant works hard, builds successful business and then sees it threatened by violence, corruption and power. Will he maintain his principles and take the high road or will he succumb and sell his soul to protect his business and family?
JC Chandor has written and directed what appears on the surface to be a uniquely American story of struggle, success, temptation and survival. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has built his business from the ground up. He buys bulk heating oil and distributes it to residential customers in and around New York City.
As we meet him, Morales (perhaps named for his vaunted morality?) has built a fleet of oil tanker trucks. He is on the verge of completing the purchase of his new receiving, shipping and storage facility which would dramatically expand his business. It is a cutthroat business, but supposedly he succeeds because of his work ethic and high standards. Morales has long been pursuing the deal for this property. He has three days to complete the terms or lose his huge down payment, his life's savings.
But on the verge of his triumphs, a series of misfortunes befalls him. Thugs beat his drivers and salesmen, steal his trucks and drain his company's oil. His home is broken into and his family is threatened. The local District Attorney, building his own reputation, investigates Morales' business practices to indict him and "clean up the industry."
Throughout Morales maintains that he has always met industry and regulators' standards, that he loves his family, that he is an honorable man. But is he? He refuses to accede to union demands that drivers are allowed to arm themselves for protection. He resists the temptation to call in the Mafia family of his wife (Jessica Chastain) to protect either his business or his family. Meanwhile, Chastain works feverishly on the company's second set of books to make them measure up to the law.
To even get to the point where we greet him, Mr. Successful Businessman, has already required a compromise of these insufferably touted values. A Most Violent Year suggests not only the dangers of such a business, but that there is no principled practice, no honorable way to grow such a business. Success in capitalism is rooted in crimes of law or against society. It does Morales no good to protest his virtue as he stands knee deep in the morass. He has long since sold his soul for the large new modern house he has moved his family into and the huge new facility for his business. He refuses to deal with his wife's organized crime family. But he is painfully dependent on bankers who are above the law in ignoring his good credit record. He knowingly subjects his workers to violence in order to expand his business. And as his wife complains, he hardly sees his family outside of business. Morales is only distinguished by the smaller size of his offenses.
JC Chandor has already illustrated how indistinguishable these boundaries become in Margin Call (2011) easily the best dramatic film on the 2008 financial collapse. Chandor's sharp writing and crisp direction similarly shed light on the dark transition to Reagonomics. As the film begins, the background soundtrack is a running account of criminal activity, perhaps a news account. But by the film's conclusion, we realize not just that the year is awash in such, but that perhaps Chandor is suggesting this violence is the new order. The real violence is the sea change of corporate consolidation in business, politics and culture... with the threat of more to come by the picture's end.