1981 is the year when Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) gets into the New York heating oil distribution business, but he wants to do it legitimately. He inherited his business from his criminal father-in-law. He makes a deposit on a waterfront deal and has 30 days to close the deal or risk losing it all. He wants to persuade the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) of his legitimacy, and he must protect his business from violent competitors. Jessica Chastain plays his business-shrewd wife. Morales’ employees are afraid since they are in the firing line. Will Morales’ business survive?
Oscar Isaac looks like Al Pacino (especially when in Scarface), so it comes as a bit of a shock to learn of Morales’ aspirations towards legitimacy, in fact he makes a big deal about it, as if he expects us to congratulate him when he says “I AM NOT A GANGSTER”. He is goaded into chasing one of the thugs who attacked his employee, he gets rough with him but does not shoot him. The street and waterfront scenes of New York recall the dour gritty look of the seventies like in Serpico. The interiors are gloomy and tacky, was 1981 really this grim? When, as a well dressed businessman, Morales gets out of his car to negotiate with the DA and the police one expects somebody to get shot but it doesn’t happen. The feel is Sidney Lumet and Scorsese, the waterfront could be On the Waterfront from 1954. The film is all the more fascinating precisely because it shuns the easy option of violence. Resorting to guns can be counter productive to the usual pursuit of profit in spite of the numerous “it’s business” excuses for violence in the Godfather and other gangster films. Morales is trying to maintain self respect as his patriarchal pride is wounded when his wife Anne offers her help in his business problems. When the DA orders a search of the Morales house it looks like a re-tread of Eliot Ness pursuing Al Capone but Anne makes it look like the hounding of a respectable yuppy household. The presence of a gun in the house startles because it seems out of place. Chastain’s Anne looks like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface but she is too intelligent to be overawed by the threats inherent in the ropiness of business dealings. Her father was, after all, a criminal who succeeded through violence. When there are business meetings we think about the pomposity of Mafia procedure, especially when suspicious recriminations fly about over Morales’ rival,s but no-one comes in waving Capone’s baseball bat. Excellent.