In a decadent society, decency is a sin, and it is one of the few that is unforgiveable. This is a lesson learned by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the borderline hero and heating oil entrepreneur at the center of J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, although he insists on learning the hard way. Adversity is no strange thing to Abel. The first time the audience meets him, he is seen jogging in an uphill direction at a clip that seems far too fast for a man of his age; the city that never sleeps has not even woken up yet, and all of this is on one of the coldest days of the year. But the main barriers to his success are not physical limitations. They are not moral injunctions either. Rather he is confronted by the full force of a society which has grown comfortable with being unjust.
Chandor suggests this injustice with subtle intimations at first, as the film intercuts between Abel and Julian (Elyes Gabel) one of his drivers who, as he weaves through traffic, listens to the daily news bulletin: Another two police officers shot the night before. Whatever can be said against contemporary society, one thing is certain; if something like this were to happen tomorrow, it would be national news (and when it does happen, it is). Not so in 1981, a time when we were so paranoid that, with the right hat and coat, Jeff Goldblum could look scary. But people were afraid of danger then because it so frequently materialized. And, no sooner does Julian hear the violence spoken of then it appears. Specifically, two armed gunmen hijack his heating oil truck and leave him by the side of the road with a broken jaw. As the camera focuses on Julian lying in the middle of the highway with sleet falling about him, there can be no mistake that this is a world with no Good Samaritans.
Despite the theft of his trucks and the abuse of his salesmen, Abel continues to try to address the problem through the confines of the law, even though he no sooner approaches the district attorney than he is informed that his company is being investigated for fraud. What follows are analogous to the modern trials of Job as friends and financiers, convinced of his innocence, nonetheless find it more expedient to distance themselves from a company that they believe cannot be saved. And, as matters worsen, Oscar Isaac does a convincing job a playing man who the world is turning prematurely old. As he shouts “This is not right” at one of his modern-day Eliphazes, his voice and demeanor carries with it the authority of one who has scratched his way upward from behind the wheel of a delivery van and who has always tried to remain righteous.
Such righteousness is admirable, but it never seems relevant, at least in as far as Abel’s success is concerned. At one point, he tells his competitors—one of whom he knows to have been stealing from him—to have a sense of honor and take pride in what they do. While only one of them is the thief, it is unlikely that any of them take his words to heart.
His own ability to take it to heart is also constantly put on trial. Being merciful can be more difficult than being honest, and even while he will not dirty his hands to break even with his enemies, he is reluctant to lay down his life for his friends ( or his most loyal employees). The temptation is constantly before him to make peace with those who seek some sort of concord with the decay—some of them are close to him, like his chief counsel, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), and his wife (Jessica Chastain, imbuing the role with the same mixture of sincerity and Machiavellianism that made her turn in Zero Dark Thirty so memorable).
Chandor’s recreation of the New York City of the 1980s is believable enough. There are things that look decadent, but nothing looks particularly new. And even though everyone from the hijackers to the union leaders seeking to arm every truck driver in New York City is capable of corruption, none of them is particularly competent at his machinations. In one scene, after a botched truck hijacking, the hijackers and the driver (in possession of a gun for which he has no permit) find themselves conspiring together as they flee from the police.
To date, Mr. Chandor is best known as the director of Margin Call, generally viewed as the best movie about the housing and loan crisis of the late 2000s. (That is a consensus I agree with, by the way.) Like Margin Call, A Most Violent Year is about how social tragedy is the product of people who may be evil by some measures, but under the right shade look fairly normal and, in different circumstances probably would be. And the title of the film itself is a bit of a paradox: The indefinite article of the title implies more than one most violent year, but there can only be one “most” violent year. That is, unless there are other measures of violence, a possibility that is hinted at toward the end.
While most people old enough to remember vigilante fantasies like Dirty Harry, Death Wish and the Ninja Turtles know that America eventually worked its way back from the edge of the precipice where A Most Violent Year is set, there no indication in the film that this is about to happen. Rather the film raises the question of whether the world is less violent or the violence has merely become socially institutionalized and mediated. Upon finally unveiling his plans, Abel is told by the attorney general that his new business will have a lot of influence, “politically,” that is. In this world, everything is for sale—as a second-hand good.
This does not mean that righteousness has no purpose in the world of A Most Violent Year, only that it is not valued. When the only rewards for compromising justice are monetary, there is very little payoff since there appears to be so little to buy. Even the Hasidic owner of Abel’s prized purchase—an oil storage facility on the Hudson—asks Abel why he would want such a God-forsaken patch of dirt. Perhaps access to the river is reason enough, but that is asking a lot during one of the seven years of famine. As Christ said, His kingdom was not of this earth and, because of that, this earth is always destined for years of violence as well as peace.