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Sleaze in the cinema: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year is a film fraught with compliance and corruption issues. Without spoiling the intricate story line, I’d like to talk about some aspects of the movie I found fascinating.

The protagonist, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), constantly strives to follow “the path that is most right.” Having taken over a successful and rapidly growing heating oil business in New York City in the 1980s, Morales has to fend off his unscrupulous competitors.

At the same time, he’s dealing with an industry-wide sweep by prosecutors that’s largely focused on Abel himself.

J. C. Chandor wrote and directed the movie. He’s masterful when exploring business ethics. He also wrote and directed the brilliant Margin Call, reviewed by Mike Scher for the FCPA Blog here.

In A Most Violent Year, Chandor presents Abel as an upwardly mobile moral man surrounded by grimy ethical challenges. Abel says, “You should know that I have always taken the path that is most right. The result is never in question for me. Just what path do you take to get there?”

But the challenges from sometimes violent competitors and myopic government investigators take a toll. In one memorable scene, Abel tells his chief financial officer/wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) about imminent charges of fraud and tax evasion.

ABEL: Where are we exposed?

ANNA: We follow standard industry practice on every front.

ABEL: What does that mean?

ANNA: You know what it means.

ABEL: I know.

ANNA: I need to know what they’re saying we did.

The movie explores what effects an investigation (without any convictions) can have on a business. Abel loses the backing of his bankers. This threatens to derail his plans for immediate expansion and could bring long-term ruin.

If you don’t want to deal with corruption issues outside your work hours, you can view the movie as an exploration of the American Dream and the dark side of it that’s always close by.

Either way, as A.O. Scott said in the New York Times, it’s a terrific movie.


Ilya Zlatkin is a Chicago attorney focusing on business planning, intellectual property, and international entrepreneurship. He’s also a Certified Fraud Examiner. He can be contacted here.

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