Rated R. Running time: 2 hours min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
In 1981 New York City set a record for crimes of violence, robbery, corruption, and the defacement of public property according to statistics. Unfortunately for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of Standard Oil, a home heating company, it is the year in which he hopes to expand his business and become a major player in a field riddled with ruthless, mob-connected competitors. The film opens with Abel, his gorgeous but tough wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and loyal lawyer/advisor Andrew (Albert Brooks) getting out of their cars and the men entering an old trailer for a business meeting. The bearded men inside are Hasidim who own a parcel of riverfront property, hence Anna’s waiting outside. The Hasidim have agreed to sell to Abel rather than any of the rival bidders. The property contains a large fuel-tank facility enabling him to receive fuel oil directly from ships and store large quantities lasting through winter, a time when prices are much higher. However the terms of the contract are harsh. He must come up with the remaining 60% owed on the million dollar plus property within 30 days or he will lose his deposit. Abel is confident he can raise the extra capital because he has had a long-standing relationship with his banker.
However, it quickly becomes clear that there will be problems. On that very day another of his trucks is highjacked and the young driver beaten so badly that he is hospitalized. Persons unknown have been stealing his oil for some time, and the hijackings continue so that his men and the head of the teamsters’ union are demanding that the drivers be armed. Abel is adamant that they do not do so, because he believes that the resultant violence will make matters worse.
Part of Abel’s resistance to guns is inherent in his nature, but he also is concerned that their use would complicate his legal problems. Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) has been preparing a report on corruption in the home heating oil industry, and it is likely that Abel will be among the leaders indicted. He strongly believes that he has always conducted his business affairs rightly, but he did work his way up from truck driver to marrying the boss’s daughter to salesman, after which he bought the company from Anna’s father, known to be a Mafia member. She as CFO of the company has been keeping two sets of books for the company. Imbued with her father’s values, she argues that the drivers be armed, especially pressing this when Abel chases off a night prowler. The next day their little daughter finds in the bushes the gun the thug had dropped, which really sets Anna off. She starts carrying a small gun herself.
The embattled Abel seems to have hit a brick wall when an indictment is handed down, causing his banker to withdraw his promise of a loan. At this point Abel seems to be a bit like Job or the author of Proverbs, a man of integrity standing alone against an unrighteous world. I write “a bit like” because Abel could be deceiving himself somewhat concerning his own righteousness—before owning the company he did for a man with Mafia connections. Nonetheless, he believes there is an ethical line he will not cross. But then he is pushed up against the wall when he discovers a thug driving one of his stolen trucks. A wild, careening chase leads through a very symbolic dark tunnel. When he catches up with the thief on the other side…
The suspense and the starkness of choices facing this man keep us riveted to the screen. Director/writer J.C. Chandor was superb in probing the psychological aspects of one man against Nature in All Is Lost. Now he shows us a man up against human forces, that of a ruthless competitor and the assistant district attorney. In most action films, such as Liam Neeson’s Taken series, we know that the main character will win out because he has such superb skills (fighting, keen perception, and in superhero stories, superhuman powers), but that is not the case here. The suspense is real. Abel is, as we see in one scene, an “able” salesman, teaching his small sales staff how to play the husbands and wife they are sent to persuade to switch to Standard, but otherwise he is an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances by which we see him beset call into question the Biblical concept of a righteous universe. The Theodore Parker inspired words of Martin Luther King, Jr. might be true–“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”—but in Abel’s case we would like to see that arc a bit shorter.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2014 issue of Visual Parables.