Writer-director J.C. Chandor is no stranger to the drama genre. With his prior two films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year seems merely a natural progression of his ever-expanding dramatic canon. Set in 1981, retrospectively discovered to be one of the most statistically violent years (hence the obvious title) in New York City, the narrative focuses on Abel Morales, the head of Standard Oil, and his travails as he attempts to remain honest in a corrupt industry and time period.
Barring the fact that Standard Oil was dissolved and re-appropriated in 1911 under the Sherman Antitrust Act, it makes sense that Chandor would choose this particular company to act as Morales' empire, being that Standard was considered one of the most corrupt in existence before its demise. Capturing the essence of New York's gritty nature during its transition out of the even rougher 1970s, Chandor shows us a world of nefariousness and violence that makes it impossible for Morales to remain completely honest without sacrificing a profit for his business.
With a series of attacks occurring on his drivers in order to steal Morales' oil, including one of his more beloved proteges, Julian (Elyes Gabel), Abel feels the pressure from all parties involved--from his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, who puts Amy Adams in American Hustle to shame with her decade-appropriate style) to the head of the teamsters to his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Though Abel is convinced the people responsible for the hijackings have to be one of his competitors, no one will come forward with any information regarding who is responsible--a resounding silence coming from all ends. With the demand to arm his drivers with handguns, Abel puts his foot down, asserting that such an action will only lead to further trouble, particularly since he's already under investigation for sketchy business practices ranging from under-reporting earnings to overcharging customers.
Anna, the embodiment of the sentiment "Behind every great man, there's a great woman," is particularly harsh in her dealings with Abel after discovering her daughter playing with a loaded gun in their yard. This incites her to buy a gun herself, which she soon uses to finish off a deer (in one of the most badass scenes displaying female power in recent memory) Abel accidentally runs over. Abel's fury at her decision to buy a gun without a permit leads Anna to call him out on not taking action and "being a pussy." Resisting every urge to hit her across the face after she says this, Abel takes the firearm from her and says that the only person who would use the type of gun she purchased is a whore.
Regardless of the disagreements Anna and Abel have over the business, they remain loyal and united with one another during the threat of losing a valuable property they're trying to close on, but can't after the bank backs out in the wake of Julian's shooting of the thieves. The controversy surrounding his business only seems to mount the more Abel tries to resolve it, culminating in an all too symbolic scene where blood and oil commingle on a reserve tank. While A Most Violent Year leaves much up in the air, its succinct portrayal of early 80s New York contributes greatly to the believability of Standard Oil's (and the oil industry in general) corruption, almost leading one to question if the story is, indeed, based on something--or someone--real. As for "taking the path that is most right," well, that's a judgment entirely up to the viewer in terms of how Abel has conducted himself.