It’s not the smoothest ride, but J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year satisfies as an original, potent tale of American individualism. Energized by a commanding performance from Oscar Isaac, the complex story drives home a cynical view of life in the jungles of small-scale capitalism in the not-too-distant past.
The jungle in this case is New York City in 1981. Isaac plays Abel Morales, owner of a fuel trucking company who envisions controlling the market through purchase of waterfront property that will become the hub of fuel delivery from foreign suppliers. But he has 30 days to find the money to buy it, and things don’t look good. For almost 2 months, his trucks have been repeatedly hijacked, then abandoned after the fuel has been drained. Although he suspects rival companies, there is no proof of this, and none of the hijackers have been identified. On top of this, his company is being investigated by the DA for criminal violations, and an indictment seems imminent.
Although too long – at least 10 minutes could be cut from the first half – we are held in suspense over the identity of the hijackers and whether Abel can achieve his dream, which is resolved satisfactorily in a terrific final half hour, featuring a breathless action sequence in a NYC subway. The view of New York at that time – filthy, neglected, graffiti-covered – is a shocking thing to see.
The casting could not be faulted. As Abel’s wife, Jessica Chastain gives a strong, steel-edged portrayal of a woman who shares her husband’s ambition, if not his idealism. The others, including an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks, are solid. But uncertainties in writing and direction blunt the overall impact. It is never explained, for instance, why the hijackers target only Abel’s company. Also, the break-in at his home makes no sense; what would the hijackers have to gain? And can we really believe that the police would not find the files that he hid under his house?
Even more bothersome is the flat, metronomic pacing of the early scenes. The actors say their lines like they’re passing around a hammer to hit a nail. This is why, I think, it takes a while for the story to take hold.
But the story intrigues, I think, because of its insight into the immigrant experience. We never learn Morales’ background, but Chandor succeeds in presenting a man burdened with conflicts, like many outsiders driven to “make it in America”. Morales seems to think that perseverance and commitment to quality are enough, and that playing by the rules will protect him. We see a man obsessed with the image of success: a beautiful wife, a Mercedes, a physique fit for a GQ wardrobe and, amusingly, a camel-haired coat that seems to be a character in itself. But what he learns by the end of the film is this: the rules only work to keep you at your assigned level. If you want to rise above that, you’ve got to break those rules, but only with the support of those who will protect you.
The film’s final scene, one of the best written and directed, conveys this forcefully. Morales meets with the DA, a black man played by David Oyelowo. The DA has had his own struggle to get where he is, but of a different kind. He quietly gives Morales an education about the way American business is really conducted. And it puts everything we’ve seen before into a new perspective. It feels right.