The End Run

Illustration by J. Brooks Robinson

How far will we throw our lives out of balance to grasp at social stability?

By the midpoint of A Most Violent Year, Abel and Anna Morales (Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain) have reached the end of their wits. Outside the office of their New York heating-oil company, Abel is told by an investor that he can no longer help them complete the transaction on a highly-coveted property: a fuel oil terminal on the East River. In the next scene, Anna—who’s just learned one of their drivers was beaten and hijacked for six thousand dollars—sits on the stairs of their home, waiting for Abel to return.

(Full Disclosure: A Most Violent Year used Endcrawl, which publishes this site.)

This bad news comes amid multiple indictments against the Morales’s heating-oil company. As Anna and Abel’s faith in the future of their business begins to wane, they begin to fade into the background of their own story.

The film is director JC Chandor’s 2014 exploration of how personal greed in America shapes one’s identity, Anna’s in particular. The year is 1981 and the Moraleses are struggling to beat their competitors in a big city where violent crime has reached an all-time high.

A question of morality

The theme of balance weighs heavy on A Most Violent Year, with much of the load borne by Abel and Anna’s relationship. Anna’s role as strategist is hinted at early on, with the first words she utters to her husband just before he makes a non-refundable down payment on the East River property: “Don’t do anything stupid,” she remarks. “We don’t have any money left,” he quips, “what else could I possibly do?”

The initial transaction goes well enough, but trouble comes in threes—thieves, unmanageable employees, and splintering friendships—and Abel and Anna’s respective responses reveal the couple’s divergence of ideals.

Ambiguity lies beneath the guise of Abel’s righteousness. He plays up a self-made immigrant story to suppress his tenacious greed. As the face of the company, he intentionally avoids discussing their practices—aside from his boasts of how his company grew “the right way”—leaving his wife to do the dirty work of maintaining their books in an unstable economy.

Anna’s moral stance is icy, protective, and plain—a personality trait developed in her youth. She shows no signs of Abel’s self-deceit; safeguarding the family outweighs all other concerns. At times, cinematographer Bradford Young, ASC riffs off the darkness of her familial history and the mystery of her business acumen by shrouding her in opaque shadow.

The filmmakers spend a lot of time positioning Anna as a passive-reactive type, waiting for Abel to do something—anything—to curb the violence against them, but his stall tactics threaten to upend their lives and uproot their livelihood.

At one point, Anna sits in a grey hospital room with Julian, the company driver who was assaulted, once again anticipating Abel’s arrival. He enters the room. Their competition won’t let the oil terminal purchase go unchallenged. “I’ll take care of it,” he says once again. But this time, Anna is not convinced. She grew up in a mafia family where turf wars were routine. She knows that carving out one’s place in the world means defending one’s territory at all costs.

A partnership of necessity

The brilliance of A Most Violent Year is that it’s hardly bloody at all. Its violence is the tragedy in Abel’s slow recognition that duplicity in an openly competitive market invites brutality. As he takes the next steps towards legitimacy, he learns the painful lesson that in order to advance in this country, one is called to take from others, something Anna already knows.

Abel’s delusion and desires collide, leaving him on the fence. Should he report the theft to the D.A.? Should he equip his drivers with guns? How can this soft, peaceful, business owner remain clean after wrestling in the mud with his competitors? He can’t choose, which means he can’t move.

Abel is further tested after Julian—also an immigrant—cracks when the fear of further assaults begins to erode his desire to “make it” in America. Julian’s mother Luisa stalls for time when Abel comes looking for Julian, who’s running from the police for using a firearm without a permit. “All he wanted is what you have,” she whimpers. Through Julian, we’re offered a glimpse of how Abel might’ve navigated his first years in America; through Luisa, we see how women are tasked with protecting the men in their lives from their own decisions.

This observation comes home to roost for the Moraleses in the film’s final transaction, wherein Abel finally begins to see Anna not just as a gangster’s daughter but as the engine of her family’s success. At home, Abel tells Anna that the oil terminal purchase will go through despite the questionable terms in their agreement. “I worked all my life not to become a gangster,” he laments. “Now they own me.”

But Anna calmly reveals that any debts they owe on the oil terminal property are taken care of, and she slips him the number of an offshore bank account containing several millions of dollars skimmed off the top of their company’s profits.

Abel is humiliated, but he doesn’t have another plan, and Anna is fed up. “You’ve been walking around your whole life like it was your hard work or good luck, your charm, your fucking American Dream,” she seethes. “It was me, doing the things you didn’t want to know about.”

A matter of survival

Abel felt the pangs of poverty in Mexico, and charges headlong at the American life he’d only read about in newspapers or seen on television in his impoverished home country. He marries a white woman from a powerful family, hardly ever speaks in his native tongue, and shows no compassion for fellow immigrants beyond “giving them a shot.”

But without the stabilizing self-awareness of his own greed, Anna is left to do the unclean work of fulfilling that dream absent any real reciprocity from her husband. Abel has to decide whether he’s willing to let the marriage—and his connection to a white world—go off the rails simply because his wife’s ambition is equal to his own.

Anna’s viciousness and cunning emerge when her family is backed into a corner. Her survivalist mentality reverberates across cultural, racial, and economic lines, as it does for many women in our homes and workspaces who are forced to sacrifice an air of virtue so, at the end of the day, equilibrium may be achieved.

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Tirhakah Love is critic from Houston, Texas writing cultural insights on how class, race, and gender manifest in contemporary art, literature, and film. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, MTV News, and the LA Times. He's @tirhakahlove on Twitter.

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