A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J. C. Chandor. Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, and Elyes Gabel. Distributed by A24, 2014. Rated R for language and some violence. Running time: 125 minutes.

Put yourself in the shoes of businessman Abel Morales, owner of Standard Heating Oil Company. The year is 1981, and you’ve just put 40 percent down on a waterfront property in New York City that will enable you to expand your business importing and selling fuel for oil-powered heating furnaces. You must pay the rest, $1.5 million, within a month, or you will lose both your down payment and the property. You’re relying on your reputation and your investors to meet the deadline.

Meanwhile, your competitors do not all play fairly, to put it mildly. Unknown assailants regularly steal your trucks at gunpoint, assault your drivers, and drain the fuel. And the violence is increasing—now including assaults on your salesmen and threats to your family. Your investors are getting nervous.

As if that weren’t enough, the government not only does nothing to protect you from such violence, it actively persecutes you based on vague and unsubstantiated claims of “corruption.” The district attorney complains that, given all the murders and assaults in the city, government cannot make the effort to keep your drivers safe; then he informs you that he’s spent two years preparing to pursue legal action against “the fuel industry,” and he is bringing charges against you alone. He all but admits that he has singled you out for special treatment, not because he knows you are guilty of violating the rights of others (as others in the industry certainly are), but because he thinks you’re an easy target.

On top of all that, some people close to you, lacking your sense of ethics and your courage in the face of adversity, take unwise and shortsighted actions that threaten to drag you further into legal hot water and insolvency. (I cannot share the details here without revealing too much about the film.)

So what do you do? Do you compromise your principles? Do you give up and sell out? Do you let violence set the terms of your existence? No. You are Abel Morales, and you will do everything in your power to maintain your integrity and persevere accordingly.

That a movie telling Morales’s story was even produced is remarkable, given that its hero is a morally virtuous businessman who sells oil—and given that businessmen broadly and oil producers specifically are widely demonized in today’s culture. To get a taste of how brazenly the film bucks the “businessman as villain” motif so common these days, consider this remark from Morales: . . .

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