Grace in A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year opens with the lead man, Abel, running—fast. Abel later […]

CJ Green / 8.12.15


J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year opens with the lead man, Abel, running—fast. Abel later explains that only cowards run, because they are too afraid to face the truth; Abel himself, however, believes he’s running towards something, not away. Later, his wife raises a pointed question: “Are you delusional?”

Despite the title and the promos, which cite that 1981 was one of New York’s most violent years, this film isn’t about the crime rate in the Big Apple. Unfolding over the course of just one month, it’s instead about one man, Abel Morales, a heating-oil tycoon fighting for self-actualization in high society. He’s a Columbian immigrant looking to make it big in America, and he’s been successful so far—but suspiciously so.

From the film’s beginning, something about him triggers distrust. Maybe it’s the briefcases and the trench coats, or the ominous music wheedling in the background of a seemingly normal business deal; maybe it’s Abel’s greasy-haired lawyer peering through thick 80s glasses that most millennials have come to associate with pedophilia. Likely, it’s my own low anthropology that spies a sinner behind every bush.

Throughout the film, Abel tries to prove that he is good enough to get a loan for a multimillion-dollar property for his heating-oil business. He testifies passionately, repeatedly, “I have never taken anything from anyone.”

Abel is rich and young and married to Jessica Chastain; he owns a booming business and buys a new mansion. Having all this, he wants more: Like the rich young ruler of the synoptics, Abel wants “higher, finer things… This fellow is a winner who will not give up trying to win” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Capon 383).

In the biblical story, a rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus doesn’t answer directly but tells him to obey the commandments, and then, with what can’t be anything but confidence, the ruler says, “Teacher, I have kept all of these from childhood.”

…all of them?

Chandor invites us to ask the same of Abel. Between intense stares and a sleek coif, it’s hard not to associate Abel with corrupt mobsters à la Michael Corleone, despite his insistence that he’s anything but. I spent the entire movie, alongside the D.A. (Selma’s MLK), waiting for Abel to slip up, to break, even a little, his moralist code fetish. Even after the D.A. dredges up a 14-count indictment for various forms of monetary crimes, Abel insists, “I run a fair and clean business, and we follow every standard industry practice, and I will fight till my last breath to prove that. Don’t think for a moment that I will let this mess interfere with our plans to grow.” He insists over and over that he is good and honest. I didn’t believe him.

I’m suspicious of the rich young ruler, too, especially the self-justifying one that resides inside of me, the voice that says I can obey my way to eternal life. The Gospel of Mark says of the man, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then decimated him with, “‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.’” Robert Farrar Capon interprets what happened next:

And at that saying, Mark says, the young man got very gloomy in the face and went off in a deep depression because ‘he had great possessions’—because, that is, he just couldn’t bear the thought of being a loser. The saddest part of the whole thing, though, is that he turned his back on the only really good piece of news he would ever hear, because in something under threescore years and ten, all that great stuff of his would be taken away from him anyway. And so would all his terrible stuff as well: the whole pile of his unacknowledged failures, the ratty tissue of his irretrievable relationships and second-rate loves. All of his achievements—his successful virtues as well as his success-loving vices—would someday go whistling into the ultimate no-win situation, the final, redeeming unsuccess of death. And the next saddest part of it is that in spite of this acted parable of the Rich Young Man—in spite of Jesus’ clear insistence that no winner will ever do anything but lose—you and I go right on blithely trying to win (KGJ 384).

Jesus gives the young ruler a command that he cannot, and will not, follow; according to Capon, this is actually good news because it graciously allows the young ruler to give it all up, admit he’s a loser, and follow Jesus into eternal life. But the ruler receives this good news with a shudder. “Grace doesn’t sell,” Capon writes, “you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers and no one wants to stand in their line” (382).

Abel, in A Most Violent Year, acts similarly. He insists he is morally strong, that by this strength he will prosper. Yet it seems the world is against him: The D.A. is sniffing like a hound, Abel’s oil trucks suffer repeated hi-jackings, and a fugitive employee threatens his reputation. Finally, the bank backs out on their loan. These pressures hit Abel violently, repeatedly, constantly serving as opportunities for him to give up the ghost and ask for help.

Spoilers follow: Several reviews have remarked that Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s claw-bearing wife, Anna, echoes Lady Macbeth. She, too, pressures her husband to break his moral law and protect his family by whatever means necessary. Additionally, she reminds him that it wasn’t his obedience, hard work, or good luck that made him a rich young oil tycoon. When Abel says, “I’ve given you everything you could possible ask for,” Anna shrieks, “You gave this to me? You?” She hints that her Mafia ties were the real power behind their ascension in the industry; her money-skimming gave them security.

True enough, he finds himself “up against it” in the last bit. He realizes that help must come from outside of himself, from people he doesn’t fully understand or trust. He desperately takes loans from both friends and rivals in order to buy property.

But the movie ends coldly. Abel is certain that even if he had bent the rules, he has nevertheless “always taken the path that is most right.”

The violence throughout, at least that which pursues Abel, is in some ways a form of grace. At every unfortunate turn is the opportunity for Abel to let go of his dreams of moralist self-actualization. Unfortunately, as with the rich young ruler, the story ends with a sad onward trudge down the same self-encased tunnel. Like Abel, “you and I go right on blithely trying to win.”

One last character is of critical importance. Julian is a truck driver who works for Abel but who breaks the law in self-defense and panic, thereby pinning himself against the morally-stringent Abel. By the end, they stand at total odds with each other. In their final confrontation, Julian weeps: “I have nothing; I have nothing. And somehow you ended up with everything you wanted.” Abel replies simply: “It wasn’t meant to be.” Julian then shoots himself, his blood covering Abel’s oil tanks. It is certainly not intended as a Christ-parallel, but in some rudimentary sense, Julian dies because Abel lives.

Even though A Most Violent Year ends, and 1981 slips into 1982, we know one thing: Abel will not enter the realm of post-movie happily-ever-after, despite his pervading high-strung moralism. His future remains unclear. He has secured his property, but satisfaction? It’s an open question.

Yet I’m particularly hopeful on Abel’s behalf, because in that last scene, when Julian shoots himself, the bullet goes through the trucker’s head and into an oil tank; liquid gold pours out. It’s a hopeful kind of symbolism: maybe this final act of violence could drain the oil tanks. Maybe Julian’s suicide could bring Abel to his knees. Maybe repentance is just a shot away.