A Most Violent Year

Pure As Driven Snow.

By Sarah Jayne Alexander.

A snowy scene from A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2015)

Considered to be one of the ‘victims’ of 2015’s Oscar nomination snubs, J.C Chandor’s third cinematic release (after Academy Award nominated, financial crash thriller Margin Call and the 2013 Robert Redford solo survival drama All Is Lost) A Most Violent Year is ironically about survival, determination, and belief in oneself to do the right thing during the hardest of times. Having received its official world premiere in 2014 at the AFI Film Festival on November 6th, the gritty, action-packed feature opened to much critical acclaim. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Drive ) stars as Heating Oil Business owner Abel Morales, a hard-working, highly successful immigrant and Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, Lawless) as his wife Anna, daughter of a local gangster who previously owned the company.

The gripping (semi-true) tale is set during the cold harsh New York City winter of 1981 – statistically the most dangerous and violent year on record – where taking something and selling it on is part of everyday life, industry rivals are more than just sharks swimming in your waters and facing life or death situations just doing your job come as standard. As rampant political and industry corruption plague the streets of the city, Abel Morales is bestowed the task of having to fight for everything he has worked for, the success his company has achieved, protecting his young family from being victims of intrusive, unprovoked attacks, and above all else, remaining on the path of morality and honesty when the cards are down.

When analysing and comparing Chandor’s previous work, A Most Violent Year could easily be considered as a somewhat delayed prequel to Margin Call thanks to the way Abel Morales’ character is propelled to succeed by his drive to minimise criminal activity in order to secure his American Dream for himself and his family, which is then legitimised by the traders on Wall Street. The year J.C Chandor chose to set the film was a real life turning point for New York City. It was so violent at that time it had reached the precipice of either moving forward into regaining its reputation and wealth or carry on with becoming a new age mecca for gun-slinging and high crime rates-a decision had to be made.

Producer Neal Dodson says of Isaac’s character “Abel Morales is a guy who believes in the American spirit of Manifest Destiny .He’s a guy who knows his path, who sets goals and sees his destiny in front of him — it’s just a question of how he’s going to get there.” He further adds: “A Most Violent Year examines the limits of upward mobility as Abel ascends the ladder towards greater success. It is a journey of risk equalling reward. He puts himself in the most vulnerable position, believing that the moment you are the most scared is also the moment when you take the riskiest action — and potentially reap the greatest reward.”

Originally Chandor cast Javier Bardem as Abel but he saw his character as less “ambiguous” and wanted him to be more defined which created ‘artistic differences’ and so he left the production. Around the time of AMVY casting, Oscar Isaac was the new face around the festival circuit having just wrapped the Coen Brothers box office hit Inside Lleweyn Davis and was being eyed up for a role in Disney’s Star Wars Episode VII adding weight to his appeal. His mixed background-Guatemalan and Cuban, growing up in Miami and having much more youthful appearance than they had first envisioned, Chandor knew he was the man to make this headstrong business man come to life. The rest of the casting seemed to follow in similar tandem with Jessica Chastain attending Chandor’s second film Margin Call‘s premiere at the same time as reading the script and after a brief meeting she was cast on the spot.

Says Chandor: “I saw Abel and Anna coming from two very different worlds … she controls the books in their company that her father owned before they bought him out. It probably wasn’t a terribly successful business initially, he was a gangster and they had maybe two or three trucks. Over the course of a decade, the Morales have turned it into something substantial. Abel represented the opposite of this way of life and with Anna’s help, he’s managed to take the business to the next level in what he perceives is the right and just way. Oscar and Jessica could not be more fitting for the diverse and power shifting characters I envisioned when writing the script and above all else, they are huge champions of each other’s work. I think that was so important to the performances they give in the movie.”

The high-powered central characters – as we are coming to expect from Chandor’s films – are at first seemingly subdued, but inside there is something much more complex and self-reliant; like a volatile ball of energy, outwardly stable but possessing the potential to explode at any moment. He explains:

“It’s my belief that to actually succeed in this country there are certain things you can and cannot do. Doing business in the epicentre of capitalism fraught with tension and complexity, for small business owners trying to expand into an upper echelon of industry and commerce, it was a case of every man for himself and gone were the days of intricately established codes between City Hall, the Mafia and the business community.”

Jessica Chastain & Oscar Isaac in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

The origin of the storyline started way back with Chandor’s own personal fascination with New York in 1981. At that time, New York was about to explode with the fall out of the dark and grimy 1970’s crime wave. He also had a personal connection to the world of industry in the form of several East Coast families – friends of his parents and grandparents who had built their own small businesses (much like Abel’s Standard Heating Oil) into greater entities, but over years and with a great deal of struggle. Whilst researching the era, Chandor came across a documented case of hijackings in Manhattan where in trucks had been held up and their precious cargo thieved routinely and then sold off to various marketplaces. This lead to the idea of a heating oil business being the perfect start up business for someone of Abel Morales’ heritage, rising up the ranks with hard work and persistence and first and foremost, a business that would have been a daily requirement for most housing, and who would rely on a fleet of trucks to transport their goods. It is also a business which would need to grow constantly, change with the times, and as we see during the film have rivals and an underworld riddled with jealousy and dog-eat-dog code of ethics.

A Most Violent Year was filmed over a 40 day period – in Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island, Long Island and Westchester – during one of the harshest winters in New York City’s history, with temperatures dipping below freezing levels for much of the shoot. Not Ideal. The regular storms, dumping drifts of snow on to carefully prepared sets, became not just a daily problem but an hourly one and being efficient at clearing was essential. No one involved in the production could have known that 2014 would go down as the most brutal winter in memory, depositing 65 inches of snow on the city in the course of three months.

Initially, Chandor set his story during the summer months as a way of heightening its violence through the heat and humidity of a typical New York summer but when scheduling issues resulted in a winter shoot, Chandor hastily updated his story, adding gravitas to a central protagonist who is fiery to the core in his efforts to expand his business and obtain the American Dream. Cast and crew were forced to quickly adapt to a winter shoot, with the added bonus that with the freezing temperatures there would be a frequent sight of heating oil trucks driving around and casually sitting in the famous NYC traffic. Who would require heating oil during summer? As much as it was a hindrance, the snow and winter actually became one of the stars of the film. Scenes with figures alone in a snowy landscape, breath showing, hands in their pockets, shoulders hunched, all become some of the film’s most memorable images.

J.C. Chandor is going from strength to strength at an incredible speed, with A Most Violent Year firmly cementing his growing reputation as a sophisticated and audacious storyteller. If you see just one film this month, make it this one.

Also starring David Oyelowo (Selma, The Butler), Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle, Face-Off), Elyes Gabel (World War Z/, Interstellar), Albert Brooks (TaxiDriver, Out Of Sight) and Academy Award Nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno (The Bridge, Magic Magic)

Directed and written by J.C. CHANDOR and Co-Produced By; Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb and J.C. Chandor.

A Most Violent Year is on general release in UK Cinemas from January 23rd, 2015

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