Would you have guessed that the heating oil market in New York City was such a cutthroat business in 1981?
Competition between rival oil companies in New York was particularly ruthless because 1981 happened to be a terrible time in New York. The homicide rate was three times what it is today. More robberies were reported that year than any other in the city’s history. Crack and heroin were major problems. It surely can’t be a coincidence that the population dropped by nearly one million residents during that time.
That’s the period within which director J.C. Chandor chooses to set A Most Violent Year. Perhaps the market among heating oil companies was indeed most fierce back then. But most importantly, rivals could hijack each other’s trucks, sell stolen oil to the competition and assault salespeople while the authorities often looked the other way because they were occupied by so much other crime.
This is made clear during a scene in which Standard Oil owner Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) is told by the district attorney (David Oyelowo) that his office basically has no time to look into who’s stealing Morales’ trucks and beating up his drivers because he has too many rapes and murders to prosecute. Of course, the DA also has time to build a case against Morales that includes tax evasion, price fixing and embezzlement among multiple felony charges, so his dismissals come across as just a bit disingenuous.
The charges come at a terrible time for Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), as Standard Oil is in the process of trying to acquire an oil depot along the Hudson River that would provide a major advantage over its rivals. Access to barges would allow Morales to import oil directly from a wider range of sources, and with the facilities, he could store a huge amount of oil throughout the summer when market prices are lower. But if Morales and Standard Oil are under investigation from the DA’s office, the deal could fall through.
Is that the stuff from which a great crime movie can be made? Well, A Most Violent Year doesn’t include any drugs, murder, or the other grisly stuff typically associated with such stories. There is some breaking and entering and the aforementioned hijacking, along with some political intrigue. But the story doesn’t even include anything as juicy as blackmail or extortion.
The suspense of the story largely comes from whether or not Morales can raise the capital he needs to finance a loan to buy the oil depot. The bank originally intending to forward Morales the money backs off once word circulates that the DA plans to press charges against him. Where does Morales turn? Can he go to his competition and broker an arrangement? Or are there shady, unethical means to acquire the necessary money, an avenue that Morales has always tried to avoid (or at least distance himself from)?
Adding to the conflict is Anna, who pushes her husband to do whatever is necessary to bury the competition and ensure his company succeeds. Morales bought Standard Oil from her father and she plainly feels he’s not doing enough to take the business far beyond what her family accomplished. When trucks are stolen, drivers attacked and their family is threatened, Anna also feels her husband is being far too passive and needs to retaliate.
Ultimately, what saves A Most Violent Year is its cast. Chastain does her usual excellent work, best demonstrated in a scene with Oyelowo in which she tells him he’s making a big mistake going after her husband. She has to be both beautiful and intimidating, as well as a bit nurturing, and Chastain conveys all of those traits wonderfully.
Isaac is a commanding screen presence who seems on the verge of stardom. A scene in which he’s coaching his new sales team on how to deal with customers is surprisingly compelling. And frankly, Isaac’s hair is fabulous — a testament to 1980s virility. I would be crushed if it turns out he was wearing a wig.
Chandor is proving to be one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. His three films are all quite different from one another. Personally, I think his first effort, Margin Call, is still his best, as its Wall Street setting and impressive cast feels vital. Many are mixed on All is Lost, which features Robert Redford and his sailboat, but I enjoyed what was a rather daring project. A Most Violent Year feels like progress, which doesn’t necessarily come with making a “bigger” film. The scope of this story reaches farther than he has before. I’m eager to see what Chandor does next.