Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) believes himself to be an honest man, and to reflect that his is setting up a business in the new York of 1981 where he will refuse to resort to criminal activity of any kind, no matter what his rivals are doing. He has an arrangement with a leader of the Jewish community, Mendelsohn (Jerry Adler), to take over a heating fuel distribution company, though there are caveats which must be sorted in a set amount of time, or else he will take the deal back and it will be cancelled. Morales is confident he can succeed, but in this city crime has run rampant, and it seems to get anywhere in the business world one has to give into one's worst impulses - can he resist? Or even survive?
In spite of the title, no matter how accurate it may have been to New York City in that year, director J.C. Chandor's film was not a wall to wall bloodbath, which is why many audiences felt they were being sold a pig in a poke as they expected a high octane action thriller when instead they were getting a character study that piled the pressure on what appears to be the last honest businessman in the whole area. For that reason this tended to be criticised with that dreaded word "overrated", when it was probably rated just right, not the greatest movie on the subject of one man standing against lawbreaking gangs, but for what it was, if you were prepared to adjust to its pace, perfectly watchable, the ability to be watched a pretty handy thing in a film.
You could have envisaged this as a Western in days gone by, possibly with Isaac sporting a cowboy hat and boots as a cattle farmer resisting the outlaws who wish to exploit him, even to the point of threatening his life: he even had a family to take care of which raised the stakes, as if losing all his money were not high stakes enough. But as this was the twenty-first century, crime melodrama didn't usually venture back to those far off times, hence the more recent setting of the early eighties which Chandor certainly makes come across as a Wild West era uncomfortably close to a contemporary period, from the perspective of when this was shot. He established it all with some skill, adding in various elements to the mix to turn up the heat under Morales.
Elements such as his wife, Anna (a fearsome Jessica Chastain), who since she is from a family not unused to dodgy dealings and strongarm tactics tries to persuade him to retaliate against increasingly menacing behaviour by his rivals by fighting fire with fire. When their tanker drivers are attacked so the oil can be stolen, she and Morales' associate Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) push him to allow them to defend themselves with force, which he is extremely reluctant to do. And that's what's an interesting theme, the hero is determined to stay lawful against enemies who are anything but, and even his allies are keen for him to reduce himself to that level; however, is this a sign of weakness on Morales' part, that he will not use violence, or is it a show of steely strength that he will not be drawn in?
It's certainly a weakness in Chandor's script that he doesn't appear wholly sure himself, so in one scene you may be willing the lead to kick back, while in another you just don't want to see him give in and compromise his morals when all around have thrown theirs away. Certainly when the occasional action scene occurs, most prominently the sequence where he chases after one of his stolen tankers and continues that pursuit on foot once the vehicle crashes, it energises what has been content to stay low key and sinister, yet they do seem like a sop to what the modern filmgoer would expect from their thrillers. This was a thriller of a sort, but equally it was a drama, and those two halves didn't quite match up, especially when Chandor couldn't devise a way to wrap up his plotlines neatly, leaving some dropped, others unsatisfactory, and the main one left open to all intents and purposes. Nevertheless, the tension of ethics was well posed in a "just because everyone else is should you be too?" manner, and it was skilfully performed, especially Chastain as the loyal but dangerous wife. Music by Alex Ebert.