As Abel Morales prepares to purchase a loading and storage facility on New York City's East River from garment-district Orthodox Jews in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, he suddenly walks out to deliver the closing documents to his wife, Anna, who is waiting by the car to cosign.
"Fuck these guys," Anna (Jessica Chastain) grouses, in a curt retort to the halakhah, or Jewish law, that dictates that she remain outside the presence of the haredim sellers.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor saturates his period piece (set in 1981) in sepia tones, marrying the gritty urban settings of Sidney Lumet with the gangland backdrop of The Godfather. In manner and ambition, Morales—played by Oscar Isaac, whose first name conveys the caliber of his performance—evokes Michael Corleone, an immigrant yearning to cultivate an honest living without staining himself with dirty money, dirty guns and dirty adversaries.
But where Corleone ultimately succumbed to the gun, Morales refuses to pull the trigger, literally and figuratively. On the surface, A Most Violent Year is about a shrewd entrepreneur combating the diffuse, institutionalized corruption that impedes the growth of his successful heating-oil-delivery business. Morales' company is big enough to have enemies but not yet powerful enough to squelch them.
So his trucks are targeted for a series of costly attacks and thefts, perhaps sponsored by competitors. The head of the local Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants to arm Morales' drivers for their protection, including a weak and fearful immigrant named Julian (Elyes Gabel). Meanwhile, Lawrence (David Oyelowo), an ambitious assistant district attorney, lodges specious fraud felonies against Morales. All of this threatens to derail financing for Morales' land purchase as the deadline to close the million-dollar sale looms.
Chandor, whose father was a financier and whose debut film, Margin Call, skewered the Wall Street collapse of 2008, convincingly channels the cadence of commerce. When Morales imparts his art of the deal to new salespeople or his profit strategy to an investment banker, he echoes another Pacino movie character, Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glen Ross.
But set in the epicenter of America's melting pot, A Most Violent Year is really about transitional tribalism and the transfer of power. Morales' rivals are second-generation plutocrats, some Mafia-influenced, who are most adept at shagging tennis balls inside fortified fortresses while mismanaging daddy's empire into the ground. They know Morales is their business better, but they lack the ruthlessness and acumen to stamp him out.
So the Italian hoods, Irish union bosses and Jewish land barons find themselves fading into the background. Meanwhile, an African-American prosecutor pulls the power levers for his political benefit. The Colombian-born Morales pledges righteousness but abides by "standard industry practice" and always takes "the path that is most right."
And Anna, the daughter of the Brooklyn gangster who sold the company to Morales, is no passive moll. She traffics in emasculation, branding her husband "a pussy" for railing against her illegal handgun and handing Lawrence a slice of birthday cake as he executes a search warrant on the couple's glass-and-steel suburban home before dressing him down in even more dismissive terms.
With his coiffure, polished attire and deliberate diction, Morales fancies himself to be transcending ethnic and moral constraints. Anna reminds him of who he is and what he sometimes must become. She's the power behind the crown, a woman in a male-dominated culture who, like her husband, is savvy enough to realize that the future is now.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dirty work"