A Most Violent Year. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
New York City in 1981 was a dangerous place. Times Square was the city's epicentre of prostitution, not tourism, and the city logged a record number of rapes and murders.
White flight from a city in economic decline made room for corruption, but also created space for immigrants pursuing the American Dream. J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) gets his hands dirty with the story of one man's struggle to stay straight in a culture determined to break his moral compass.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a heating and fuel business. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) does the books. Abel bought the business from his father-in-law, and is determined to run it as a businessman, not as a gangster.
It's not easy: a small cluster of families has had a cutthroat monopoly for years, fiercely guarding their territories and finding ways to cheat the system. It's a free-for-all business environment rife with corruption.
Abel has dreams of expanding, of owning a long-dormant fuel-storage facility right on the water. "I like to own the things I use". Accompanied by his lawyer (Albert Brooks), Abel ponies up two suitcases full of cash for a shot at owning what the owner refers to as "a polluted, dirty piece of earth". (Today's viewer can't help but chuckle: with Lower Manhattan visible right across the water, the property is worth millions today.)
Abel has 30 days to find the rest of the money and close the deal but the next month proves to be a challenge: 110,000 gallons of his fuel have been stolen in six months, and his drivers are being picked off one by one.
The union is threatening to shut things down, and thanks to an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo) a corruption case is being mounted against him.
"When it feels scary to jump, that is when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life," is Abel's steadfast philosophy.
After an intruder nearly breaks into their new home and one of their young daughters finds a loaded gun in the yard, Anna - who comes from a family of thugs - runs out of patience. "You're not gonna like what'll happen once I get involved," she threatens Abel. She calls him names. And when their car hits a deer, Abel can't put it out of its misery; it's Anna who does the deed.
But Abel is determined to stay the honest-man's course, lecturing his competitors (Alessandro Nivola among them) about integrity and schooling his protÃ©gÃ© (Elyes Gabel, excellent) on the merits of patience and hard work.
Emotions simmer, things escalate, and the audience is never quite sure when things will boil over. If Anna is a firecracker, Abel is a quietly-ticking time bomb.
Tellingly, when violence does enter the picture, Abel stops the oil draining from one of his tanks before he stanches the wound of a bleeding body.
Chandor's screenplay is taut and understated, complemented by superb acting, and creates an immersive experience of time and place.
"I have always taken the path that is most right," Abel says, summing up his ethics. And in pursuing capitalism and the American Dream, perhaps, suggests Chandor, that's the best anyone can do.