The American Nightmare, by Tyler Smith
“I believe in America.”
This is the first line in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and the choice to kick off a film about the mafia with an optimistic view of America as the land of opportunity is a bold one. It heavily implies that, for one to achieve the American dream, one must get a little dirty. It is a deeply cynical view, which perversely offsets the deep family connections explored in the first film. As time has gone on, this type of cynicism has pervaded the culture to the extent that I would say most people just naturally take it for granted that success isn’t possible without a little corruption.
However, in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, we do get one man so fiercely devoted not only to the American dream, but to achieving it honestly, that he is every bit as intimidating as any movie gangster. This is Abel Morales, the young owner of a heating oil company in 1981 New York City. He lives in a time of uncertainty, with crime at an all-time high and the recession of the 1970s still echoing in people’s minds.
Despite all of this, Abel’s company is growing. He and his family are able to move to a nicer house. He is able to hire new salesmen. He is on the verge of acquiring oceanfront property that will enable his company to import oil directly, rather than depend on others. True independence is within Abel’s reach, but it’s coming with a price.
Not only is Abel under investigation from an ambitious district attorney, but his oil is consistently being stolen by a competitor. The pressure mounts as Abel’s wife, Anna, demands that he do more to keep his family safe, lest she do it herself. This is the last thing Abel wants, as Anna’s father is a criminal himself, and turning to him in times of trouble will only complicate matters.
This is a lot of story to juggle, and Abel must constantly move to keep all the plates spinning. It is both exhausting and exhilarating to watch, as we see just how hard it can be to make things happen the way we’re supposed to. There’s a reason that people turn to a life of crime. The risk may be great, but the reward is even greater. A job can be difficult, but simply taking what you want can be notably easier.
It seems strange, given the number of movies and television shows that glorify criminals and rebels, that a man so devoted to walking the straight and narrow can be so fascinating to watch. Perhaps the reason we’re so invested in his goal is because we so badly want to believe it’s possible. We want to be shown that it is possible for somebody to lead a good, upright life- resisting the temptation to do what is easiest- and make it through okay.
We look at the cheaters and thieves and murderers and rapists in the news and see how many of them get away with only a minimal consequence (if not get off scot-free) and we feel like suckers. We wonder why we tried so hard when others managed to cheat their way to the top.
These are some pretty big themes, especially in 2014 America, where jobs seem to be scarce and corporate and political corruption appear to be at an all-time high. People can work their whole lives only to have their pension stolen by a crooked executive. A small business can bend over backwards to accommodate every legal requirement, only to be faced with several new regulations by an enterprising governor. It can get pretty tiresome.
By the end of the film, Abel sees things as clearly as he has in a while. He sees that perhaps there’s no such thing as completely straight. Politics, business, criminality; they’re all part of a larger system and are reliant on each other in order for anything to get done. A Most Violent Year is about Abel’s figuring out of where he fits into this system.
Perhaps the only chance anybody can have isn’t to try to change the system, or to work outside the system, but to recognize that it will always be there, working as it always has, and to simply try your best to work within it. This is where Abel has arrived by the end of the film, and with it comes a perverse sense of hope. And the idea that this film attempts to explore the American Dream and eventually comes to a place of reluctant submission- and then has the audacity to call that hope- is as blistering a commentary on America as we’re likely to ever see.