“A Most Violent Year” is about the home heating oil business in New Jersey in the early 1980s. No, that doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But apparently 1981 was, statistically at least, particularly violent in the New York City area, and the trucking business was one of the primary reasons.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns an up-and-coming trucking company with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain). He’s charming and slick, in an oily kind of way, as he instructs his sales people to make long eye contact, longer than is comfortable, because they need to be supremely confident that they are selling at a better price than their competitors.
The trouble is, their competitors are not nice guys. There are implications of Teamster toughs and of the mob (we’re not quite sure), but we know that certain rival companies have their claims staked on certain client territory… and there is no such thing as friendly competition.
There is also the implication that Abel could “mob up” any time he wanted (because of Anna’s family connections), but he’s determined not to do that. He wants to make it on his own, by pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and not be beholden to any mobster. But that’s easier said than done in this shady, shadowy underworld, where “standard industry practice” is to fleece the customer, underreport earnings, cook the books for the IRS and blizzard the swamped DA’s office with a convoluted paper trail nobody could easily unravel. Apparently Anna understands all this very well, as she is the chief book cooker, but pretends to be a nice soccer Mom in the suburbs, complete with balloon-strewn birthday parties for their two young daughters (whom we rarely see).
But this one is about Abel trying to navigate the grey areas. His self-proclaimed operating principle is that there is one pathway that is “more right” than the others. He wants to be able to tell the DA with a straight face that he is an honest man. (Actually, he’s just not as bad as the rest of them.) He wants to be able to tell his employees that they’re selling a superior product. (Actually, it’s the same product as everyone else’s –they just sell it a little cheaper, but the employees understandably don’t like being attacked and beaten by anonymous hired thugs.) Abel wants to be able to tell himself that he’s made it on his own (when actually, he knew that his wife’s family was watching his back all along and was their informant). He’s a classically conflicted character, which doesn’t mean we viewers don’t empathize. It’s just that he’s a little too oozy to like. And he is right about one thing – everybody around him is worse.
“A Most Violent Year” is a slice of underworld Americana that feels rough-hewn and raw and not very awe-inspiring. But it’s as real and cold and hard as a thick New Jersey accent in the middle of winter.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.