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2015’s cinematic rendition of the Rich Young Ruler comes to us from J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, which opens with the lead man, Abel, running—fast. Abel later explains that only cowards run, because they are too afraid to face the truth; Abel himself, however, firmly believes that he’s running towards something, not away from it. Later, his wife asks him a pointed question: “Are you delusional?” These kind of questions, of subtle inner conflicts, are central to Chandor’s latest work.

Despite the title and the promos, which cite that 1981 was one of New York’s most violent years, this film isn’t about the crime rate in the Big Apple. Unfolding over the course of just one month, it’s instead about Abel Morales, a heating-oil tycoon fighting for full self-actualization in high society. He’s a Columbian immigrant wanting to make it big in America, and he’s been successful so far—but suspiciously so.

Even from the movie’s beginning, something about him triggered my distrust. Maybe it was the briefcases and the trench coats, or the ominous music wheedling in the background of a relatively normal business deal; maybe it was Abel’s greasy-haired lawyer peering through thick 80s glasses that most millennials have come to associate with pedophilia. Likely, it was just my cheerless low anthropology that spies a sinner behind every bush.

Throughout the film, Abel tries to prove that he is good enough to get a loan for a multimillion-dollar property for his heating-oil business. He testifies passionately, repeatedly, “I have never taken anything from anyone.”

Abel is rich and young and married to Jessica Chastain; he owns a booming business and buys a new mansion. Having all this, he still wants more: Like the rich young ruler of the synoptics, Abel wants “higher, finer things… This fellow is a winner who will not give up trying to win” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Capon 383).

In the biblical story, a rich young ruler approaches Jesus, asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus doesn’t answer directly, but tells him to obey the commandments, and then, with what can’t be anything but confidence, the ruler says, “Teacher, I have kept all of these from childhood.”

… all of them?

Chandor invites us to ask the same of Abel. Between his intense stares and sleek coif, it’s hard not to associate Abel with corrupt mobsters a la Michael Corleone, despite his insistence that he’s an honest business man. I spent the entire movie, alongside the D.A. (Selma’s MLKJ), waiting for Abel to slip up, to break, even just a little, his moralist code fetish. Even after the D.A. dredges up a 14-count indictment for various forms of monetary crimes, Abel insists: “I run a fair and clean business, and we follow every standard industry practice, and I will fight till my last breath to prove that. Don’t think for a moment that I will let this mess interfere with our plans to grow.” He insists over and over that he is good and honest. I just didn’t believe him.

I’m suspicious of the rich young ruler, too, especially the self-justifying one that lurks inside of me, the voice that says I can obey my way to eternal life. The Gospel of Mark says of the rich young ruler: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” And then decimated him, saying, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” Robert Farrar Capon interprets what happened next:

And at that saying, Mark says, the young man got very gloomy in the face and went off in a deep depression because ‘he had great possessions’—because, that is, he just couldn’t bear the thought of being a loser. The saddest part of the whole thing, though, is that he turned his back on the only really good piece of news he would ever hear, because in something under threescore years and ten, all that great stuff of his would be taken away from him anyway. And so would all his terrible stuff as well: the whole pile of his unacknowledged failures, the ratty tissue of his irretrievable relationships and second-rate loves. All of his achievements—his successful virtues as well as his success-loving vices—would someday go whistling into the ultimate no-win situation, the final, redeeming unsuccess of death. And the next saddest part of it is that in spite of this acted parable of the Rich Young Man—in spite of Jesus’ clear insistence that no winner will ever do anything but lose—you and I go right on blithely trying to win (KGJ 384).

Jesus gives the young ruler a command that he cannot, and will not, follow; but according to Capon, this command is actually good news because it graciously allows the young ruler to give it all up, admit that he’s a loser, and follow Jesus into eternal life. But the ruler receives this good news, as do I, with a shudder. “Grace doesn’t sell,” Capon writes, “you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers and no one wants to stand in their line” (382).

Abel, in A Most Violent Year, acts similarly. He insists that he is strong and that by his own strength he will prosper. And yet, it seems the world is against him: The D.A. is sniffing him like a hound, his oil trucks suffer repeated hi-jackings, and a fugitive employee threatens his reputation. Finally, the bank backs out on their loan. These external pressures hit Abel violently, repeatedly, constantly serving as opportunities for him to give up the American dream and say, ok, I need some help.

Several reviews have remarked that Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s claw-bearing wife, Anna, echoes Lady Macbeth. But she, too, pressures her husband to break his moral law and protect his family by whatever means necessary. Additionally, she is critical in reminding him that it wasn’t his obedience, hard work, or good luck that made him a rich young oil tycoon. When Abel says, “I’ve given you everything you could possible ask for,” Anna shrieks, “You gave this to me? You? Are you delusional?” She hints that her Mafia ties were the real power behind their ascension through the cutthroat New York oil industry; it was her money-skimming that gave them security.

Spoilers follow: The movie never confirms or denies whether or not Abel is as crooked as the D.A. seems to think. But by the end, after allowing his truck-drivers to get beat up, betraying a friend, and using potentially stolen money from a secret bank account, you really have to wonder if Abel has followed all of the commandments.

The movie ends without repentance. Abel is certain that even if he had bent the rules, he has nevertheless “always taken the path that is most right.” True enough, he finds himself “up against it” in the last bit, and he is forced to ask for help. He realizes that help must come from outside of himself, from people he doesn’t fully understand or trust. He desperately takes loans from both friends and rivals in order to buy the property.

The violence throughout, at least that which pursues Abel, is in some ways a form of grace. At every unfortunate turn is the opportunity for Abel to let go of his dreams of moralist self-actualization. Unfortunately, as with the rich young ruler, the story does not end in repentance but a sad onward trudge down the same self-encased tunnel. Like Abel, “you and I go right on blithely trying to win.” And this is violent grace: that through grotesque shootings and stomach-twisting events, God persistently gives Abel the opportunity to lay down his life and follow him—if only Abel would see that for himself. (Of course that isn’t Chandor’s intention, but it is Jesus’!) Still, in a transcended-fourth-wall sort of way, the violence, which ultimately doesn’t disrupt Abel’s plans for himself, serves to challenge the viewer. We see Abel’s uncompromising attitude throughout the violence, and we are not satisfied. Similiarly, the rich young ruler’s rejection of Jesus is troublesome: No one reads that story comfortably. The almost violent grotesque—and the challenge of it—pulls us out of ourselves and reminds us of our human limitations (Flannery O’Connor).

One last character is of critical importance: Julian. Julian is a truck driver who works for Abel but who breaks the law in self-defense and panic, thereby pinning himself against the morally-stringent Abel. By the end, Julian sees himself as a lawbreaker, a fugitive, while Abel sees himself as a law-abider, a good man. They stand at total odds with each other. In their final confrontation, Julian weeps: “I have nothing; I have nothing. And somehow you ended up with everything you wanted.” Abel replies simply: “It wasn’t meant to be.” Julian then shoots himself, his blood covering Abel’s oil tanks. It’s certainly not intended as a Christ-parallel, but in some rudimentary sense, Julian dies because Abel lives.

This is the kind of movie that makes you wonder what will happen to the characters in whom you’ve invested the past two hours. Even though A Most Violent Year ends, and 1981 slips into 1982, we know one thing: Chandor wants us to realize that Abel will not enter the realm of post-movie happily-ever-after, despite his pervading high-strung moralism. His future remains unclear. Sure, he secures his property, but will he be fully satisfied? Definitely not. And I know that God’s grace is violent, and it will continue to show itself: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” I’m particularly hopeful on Abel’s behalf, because in the last scene, when Julian shoots himself, the bullet goes through the trucker’s head and into an oil tank; liquid gold pours out. It’s a hopeful kind of symbolism: Maybe this final act of violence could finally drain the oil tanks of prosperity. Maybe Julian’s suicide will finally bring Abel to his knees. Maybe repentance is just a shot away.