A Most Violent Year (2015, 125 minutes) is the third film from writer-director J.C. Chandor who wrote and directed 2011’s Margin Call about a Lehman Brothers-like firm in the early days of the 2008 financial crisis.
Margin Call explored the complex relationships between white collar workers, corporate executives, and the firm’s customers in the face of economic ruin. With A Most Violent Year, Chandor returns to similar themes. But in this case, he focuses on a privately-owned heating oil business in 1981 New York City made successful by the relentless determination of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has clawed his way to the top of his industry through a commitment to salesmanship and slow-and-steady growth.
Morales also faces economic ruin if he cannot complete a purchase of a valuable piece of real estate which will allow him to crush his competition.
Morales prides himself on playing by the rules of the marketplace. That is, he is committed to beating his competition by providing a better service to his customers. The problem is that Morales’s competitors do not have similar hang-ups, and they are more than happy to employ dirty tricks such as violently hijacking Morales’s trucks full of heating oil and stealing their contents.
On top of this, Morales must deal with an aggressive and politically ambitious assistant district attorney, the teamsters union, and other shady figures from organized crime outfits who threaten his business.
In the opening scenes, one of Morales’s drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel) is badly beaten when his truck is hijacked by unknown thugs. Morales is appalled by this disregard for fair play and tells Julian “these men are cowards. They’re too weak to earn a living or fight with their own hands. They’re too stupid to think of something [legitimate] to do.”
Indeed, the film portrays Morales, who was once a driver himself, as being genuinely concerned for the welfare of his employees. He considers Julian, whom Morales personally drives home from the hospital, to be an excellent employee whose job will be waiting for him when he recovers. But, of course, Morales also knows that he can’t survive if thieves continue to steal his heating oil.
The police find Morales’s truck, with all the oil removed, shortly thereafter. However, the police are of no help whatsoever, and not surprisingly so, since New York City is in the midst of a crime wave and the murder rate is at an all-time high. For Morales, the police are dead weight who do nothing to prevent or prosecute theft. To emphasize this, we then learn that Morales and his company are being investigated by the assistant district attorney for a variety of regulatory infractions (i.e., what libertarians call “non-crimes”) such as “price fixing” and related offenses, including tax evasion. As we soon see, however, it’s unclear as to what exactly Morales is paying taxes for. Morales asks the district attorney for help in stopping the thefts, but as far as he is concerned, he tells Morales, “you’re all stealing from each other, which is a refreshing change from what you’ve been doing to your customers and the taxpayers.” If Morales is going to stop the theft of his oil, he’s clearly on his own.
Meanwhile, the teamsters union (which represents Morales’s drivers) is threatening to illegally arm all truck drivers in the face of the hijacking threat. Morales fears that violence may spin out of control and also clearly fears New York’s draconian anti-gun laws which will come down hard on Morales if his drivers are found with handguns. Thus, the drivers remain helpless and the hijackings continue.
Morales’s family even becomes endangered as one of his competitors apparently sends a gunman to terrorize the family in their suburban home. Morales’s wife, who comes from a family with organized crime connections, demands Morales take more decisive action, by which she means actions of ambiguous legality. She threatens to take care of things herself, and notes “you’re not going to like what’ll happen once I get involved.”
Morales does find himself being pulled into the organized crime world more and more. Following the assistant district attorney’s public announcement that Morales is under investigation, he loses his line of credit from the bank and must turn to the New York underworld to find the funding he needs to complete a time-sensitive purchase of a valuable oil-storage facility on the East River. Thanks to the assistant district attorney, he must then beg his own shady competitors for money, and although his entrepreneurial ingenuity is key to the solution, the film hints that ultimately, Morales’s business is saved by the thievery of others.
Thanks to Chandor’s preference for subtlety, this movie is neither preachy nor didactic, so Morales’s moral position is never entirely clear. Is he a nearly-blameless entrepreneur who has merely had the misfortune of being surrounded by people of questionable moral character? Or has Morales played the system all along, and his uprightness is mostly just something he believes in his own mind? What we do know is that A Most Violent Year is a very convincing story of how the so-called American dream has been corrupted by ambitious politicians, unchecked crime, and a state that is impotent except when it comes to prosecuting people who provide the actual goods and services on which society relies. At the same time, the film’s point may be that capitalists and entrepreneurs have willingly participated in the system’s corruption, but if that is the point, it doesn’t obscure the overall quality of this film.