A) The mob, capitalism and politics…
1) The key to capitalism: competition and the law of the market, "the invisible hand"!
The movie depicts the career path of Abel Morales, an immigrant who has fully assimilated into the American society to the point of speaking much better and more elaborate English than any other character in the film. The movie starts when he is poised to launch into a risky investment in order to develop his business (the storing and sale of heating oil): the purchase of a huge derelict storing and treatment facility on the banks of the East river. Growing, getting bigger, the key words of capitalism are his obsession here as well as a clever strategy since the immediate proximity of the river will give him access to globalized trade.
But heating oil is a tough and dubious market, partly taken up by mobsters. And strive as he might to remain decent and honest, Abel is relentlessly drawn into practices which he disapproves of. The fact is that his trucks are repeatedly attacked and his fuel gets stolen. By whom?? This seems to be the McGuffin of the movie. Abel investigates in order to find out who is hiding behind the "invisible hand" stealing his oil. But at no time, not even at the end, will we know who is responsible for the thefts. Maybe, it is because this is not what is really important here. What matters more is that by getting bigger and developing his business, Abel disturbs the competition, threatens to obtain a monopoly on the market. And to refer to Adam Smith, the "invisible hand" regulating the marker here takes the form of manipulation and violence.
2) Manipulation: who manipulates whom?
The movie offers a fine picture gallery of smooth operators.
Abel, decent and honest though he claims to be, teaches a convincing lesson into manipulation to the new salesmen he hires, showing them how to coax customers into changing purveyors to his benefit.
His wife, Anna, as it appears at the end of the movie, has for years been skimming money from the company so as to ensure their future; an attitude which, blameworthy as it might be, turns out to save his plans!
The D.A who is supposed to represent law and order, and who is investigating on Abel's company and is quite close to bringing up a case against him, is more concerned by his own interests and career, and eventually reaches an agreement with Abel when he discovers the facility that the latter has bought on the banks of the East river. As a clever and clear-sighted man, he immediately understands that this purchase will give Abel "a powerful position, significant influence, politically speaking" and realizes how much more convenient it will be to make a deal with Abel, rather than to badger him!
Obviously, in the midst of all this deal-making, this string-pulling, this dagger-drawing, the question is raised how far you should go in the competition aiming at eliminating the competitor, where the thin red line of legality is to be drawn…
B) "The path that is most right"
At the end of the movie, Abel claims that he always chose "the path that is most right". An interesting phrase: what is, exactly, the path that is most right?
1) The thin red line of legality.
Abel is always terrified of falling into crime: not only does he face the risk of being indicted for a certain number of offenses in the wake of the investigation led by the D.A, but he also has to deal with the growing anger of his truck drivers, who are getting fed up with being attacked, and who are spurred, by the head of their union, into arming themselves, thus increasing the risk of a serious incident. When he confronts Arnold, his direct competitor who confesses he bought a couple of loads of Abel's stolen fuel, he chooses to demand his money back rather than to press charges.
The crowd surrounding Abel is composed of figures who are more mobsters than businessmen. Or is the director suggesting that the line between a businessman and a mobster was pretty blurred in this context of the New York of the beginning of the 1980s?! First, his wife, Anna, is the energetic daughter of a Brooklyn gangster; she plays an active part as an accountant for the company. She saves her husband's hide by embezzling funds from the company and however questionable this might seem, she appears to be a wiser businesswoman than he is.  She is not a woman to let anyone tread on her toes, and she gets a gun to defend herself and her children against the threat closing in on them. Then, their lawyer has known and covered up the wife's activities all along! And eventually, all his "colleagues", or competitors are more or less involved in buying his loads of stolen heating oil.
2) The escalation into violence.
As the line of legality is thin and blurred, the escalation into violence is bound to take place.
The drivers' arming themselves was bound to end up in a serious incident. It concerns poor Julian, the younger symbolic twin of Abel, a Hispanic immigrant like him, for whom Abel represents the poster child of success, of the self-made man, of the American dream. He wants to be like him, he wants to be him! But failure and suicide await him at the end of his path. Is it because he did not choose "the path that is most right"?
Then, Abel himself, ends up beating a man black and blue; and is on the verge of putting a bullet through his head while he was incapable of finishing up the deer which he hit in the car crash with his wife. The parallel between the two scenes and the irony related to it are quite striking!
Violence is bound to escalate in this urban war for the heating oil market in which it is the law of the fittest which prevails, and in which covering up the whole territory is the ultimate goal.
C) The stake: the city, a wasteland in reconstruction.
1) A wasteland in reconstruction.
At the beginning of the movie, Anna points out that "we're at war". And indeed, the setting in which the story is set pictures a city which looks like a post-war wasteland made out of derelict industrial facilities, yards and warehouses. The wasteland impression is further stressed by the fact that the action takes place in winter, with the snow covering everything up in a sepia whitish photography.

 This is the New York of the end of the 1970s, in which criminality was at its highest, before the major clean-up performed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the Michael Bloomberg era, the two energetic Republican Mayors who cleaned up and reshaped the city. This is the time when serial killers like the Son of Sam terrorized the city, and you can hear and feel this atmosphere through the radio news reports that Abel is listening to in his car.
2) Abel Morales: a man with a vision.
But precisely, in this wasteland, in this context of urban dereliction, there is a man with a vision: Abel Morales. Where some see polluted derelict facilities (the Jewish owners), he sees prospects of growth and development. During the dinner scene with the bankers, Abel is extremely convincing in explaining why he is so eager to acquire that facility: not only does it give him huge storage capacity enabling him to buy fuel in summer when the price is low, and to sell it in winter when the price increases, thus making higher profits, but with immediate access to the East River, it also gives him an opening to the world and to global trade! The D.A also sees the prospects of development for the city. Together, through their alliance, they represent the future!
The area which is most concerned here is the one around 59th to 62nd street including the Queensboro bridge. This is not mere chance. This bridge is a huge hub which connects several parts of the city and because it passes over the East river, also links it to the world. It connects Long Island City in the borough of Queens to Manhattan overriding Roosevelt Island. It also carries New York State route 25. In The Great Gatsby, Francis Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time in its wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world." This is precisely the impression that Abel and the D.A have when they gaze at the view of the Manhattan skyline in the closing scene, pondering over the prospects that the city offers for the future.