“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.” -John Wayne.
This is a popular theme in books, television, and film. Whether a character is standing up to injustice, the system, or whatever, it’s a frequently occurring theme. Without a code, it’s easy to get lost in the world and consumed by the surrounding circumstances or be persuaded by anyone to do or believe almost anything. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. A Most Violent Year, the latest film by promising director J.C. Chandor, focuses on a man struggling to remain uncompromised in a corrupt business.
Set in the winter of 1981, one of the most violent years in New York City, A Most Violent Year is a tense drama focused on an immigrant man fighting to keep his family and his company safe from the violence that seems to be closing in around him. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious businessman in the oil industry who is rising fast up the food chain. He is looking to close on a piece of land that will help solidify and expand his business going forward. He puts his life savings on the property as the upfront payment with thirty days to close with the rest of the money, which shouldn’t be a problem as he is in good standing with his bank. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) also helps run the business, Standard Oil, which Abel bought from her father, who it is implied has ties to the mob. Abel insists on running a clean business, despite many of his competitors being corrupt and criminal in their activities; activities that have led to Abel’s oil trucks being stolen more and more frequently and his drivers being put in peril. On top of that, despite his best efforts to remain honest, upfront, and helpful, the Assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel and his company for illegalities.
It’s telling that Abel’s company is named Standard Oil, given that Abel is a man of principle. He believes in fair work and fair pay for his employees and fair business between his competitors. He is a man who is ambitious but unwilling to sink to the level of his competition. Despite the pressure from his lawyer (Albert Brooks) and the Teamsters rep to allow his drivers to carry guns, Abel will not compromise. He believes that setting an example and staying the course will eventually win the day. Circumstances begin to snowball however, and the sure ground beneath Abel’s feet slowly begins to crumble. Pressure mounts at home from Anna who is trigger-happy to invoke her father’s name and her ties to people who can fix the situation.
Chandor has proven to be an impressive director so far. 2011’s Margin Call dealt with the financial crisis of 2007. In 2013, he put Robert Redford through the survival wringer with All Is Lost. If there is a through line for his work so far, it is crisis management. Here, it is about a man having the rug pulled out from under him while juggling a lot of balls in the air.
There is a sureness in Isaac’s performance, this is the type of character you could see a young Al Pacino playing if it were actually made in 1981.. Abel is someone who feels confident in his abilities as a businessman because he believes he is morally right and he believes in his hard work. “The hardest thing you will ever do is look someone in the eye and tell them the truth,” he says to a group of new hire salespeople. Abel honestly believes this, and projects confidence, even as he slowly begins to realize that he may be more morally compromised than he realizes. Isaac also does a great job of projecting a quiet desperation that Abel is experiencing as he is running around trying to keep everything from imploding around him, while showing a determination to accomplish his goals seemingly through sheer force of will. Anna, however, is someone much more comfortable with moral ambiguity.
A Most Violent Year is another impressive film for J.C. Chandor. Oscar Isaac further solidifies himself as one of my favorite actors currently working and his profile should only continue to rise. I can’t wait to see what each has to offer next.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars