On a crisp winter morning in 1981, a young Latino man jogs along the East River. Sporting a black knit cap and gray warm ups like a young Rocky Balboa, he moves, steely and determined, to the moody rhythms of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” He is alone amid the rusty detritus of a city seemingly left for grabs, its docks and warehouses abandoned and still, no longer bustling with the cranks, blasts, curses, and exhaust of industry. This is how we first come upon Abel Morales, aspiring heating oil magnate and protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film, A Most Violent Year.
He is played by Oscar Isaac, who imbues Morales with an almost inhuman stillness, even as financial and legal nooses tighten around him in 1981 New York, threatening his ambitions, livelihood, and his family. This was a New York eaten from the inside by corruption and violence. For those seeking to build an empire, the city’s broken carcass was ripe for the picking — perhaps by the brown man, the working man, or even the brown man who was once a working man. Abel’s carefully groomed appearance and deliberate cadence suggest construction: of behaviors, of experiences, of a coherent identity. He uses few words, and those he uses he deploys to great effect, to make the listener internalize the dogma.
Morales wages what he deems a righteous war to secure his company’s long-term future in heating oil, just as Michael Corleone ruthlessly consolidated his family’s criminal empire in the 1950s and 60s. Both projected power through composure, and choose their words carefully. Many (most, really) have, in fact compared Isaac’s controlled performance to Pacino’s as Corleone. Homage is no doubt at work, an observation critics will likely continue to make as Isaac — by no means a traditional-looking or seeming star, whose odd rhythms, sensitive but neurotic intelligence, convey something pained and struggling for control — continues to complicate our sense of him as a performer: as a crusader for desegregated housing, as an X-Wing pilot, as a monomaniacal supermutant.
Abel comes from an unnamed Latin-American country. With one notable, obvious, crucial exception — a young truck driver hungry but tragically ill-equipped for Abel’s world– he is the only one of his particular tribe. From an interview with the New York Daily News:
[W]ith A Most Violent Year, it’s like the very first time that you see a Latin American man portrayed this way. He’s not a gangster; he’s nonviolent, he’s powerful, he’s quintessentially American, and he’s not a sidekick. We get to see a very un-clichéd look at the Latin American immigrant experience and really what the backbone of this country is. A lot of people like this come and work their way to the top, and this is somebody that buys into the American dream — and at the same time he’s very flawed. When you present someone not as a token for the entire community, I think that actually does more for the community than being some sort of poster child.
Yet, within Morales’ quintessential Americanness, there is the nagging sense of a camel-hair coated aspiring tycoon desperate to break in — to perform that quintessentialness.
There is something subtle and powerful Isaac instructs about the nature of performance in A Most Violent Year. In this scene, he explains performance. Breaking it down step by essential step, Morales wants, and needs his new salesmen to understand the script and to live it, the lessons and rituals that made Abel Morales into Abel Morales.
As he grows more desperate — for a massive infusion of cash to close a purchase for a fuel terminal that would profoundly improve his company’s fortunes — he somehow grows increasingly determined to win by the book, and only by the book. He won’t arm his delivery men even though they’re being carjacked by rogue gunmen, and he won’t cave under the pressure of a dogged attorney general bent on bringing him down for corruption, real or perceived.
His intense cerebralism seems to exist without spit and fire, the visceral stuff of empire-building. He has constructed a persona, and understands himself as the archetypal self-made man: reliant on no one, aiming to please and provide for one those closest to him. This is the story he’s written for himself. Abel’s stillness, his precision, is all part of a carefully calibrated performance. He is not of their tribes — the Teamsters, the Italian organized crime networks, the Hasid businessmen he’s trying to buy the terminal from.
The specifics of Abel’s story before the heating oil, before New York, before his family and marriage, seem to matter little for him. He is what he is here, today, the product of his choices and decisions as a businessman able and willing to create something of his own atop the detritus of collapse. It’s his American tale.
That exception is, of course, his tragic, blubbering foil: young delivery man Julian, who wants nothing more than to one day be Abel. Abel shows concern and genuine sympathy for Julian after he is violently held up in the inciting incident that drive the rest of the film. Abel, David Denby wrote, sees a younger version of himself in Julian. “If you’re a rising entrepreneur, you have to impress people, even a confused, impulsive young immigrant like Julian,” Denby wrote. “[T]he character is Chandor’s way of reminding us that most immigrants don’t wear camel hair,” he adds, drawing a parallel with the Corleone family code. But as he also points out, it is “the ways in which Abel differs from him that make the movie special.”
As shit luck sends Julian spiraling, Abel chooses to separate himself from him. He’s too weak, too stupid, too unwilling to take the occasional beating as part of the long game to glory. Something in Abel’s past perhaps shaved away any softness, reducing him to a hard, not unfeeling rock, but one one whose sympathies are hard-earned. For a man who so desperately wants to be seen by Abel, Abel has no sentiment to spare.