New York writer-director Chandor shot like a cannon out of Sundance 2011 with Wall Street talk-fest “Margin Call,” which landed him an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, followed by success d’estime “All Is Lost” in 2013, with solo movie star Robert Redford. So expectations were high for his third feature, “A Most Violent Year
A24 landed the movie, which was backed by Participant Media, and agreed to open the film for awards
consideration, debuting it opening night at AFI FEST
, followed by a theatrical launch on New Year’s Eve. I talked to Chandor and his star Oscar Isaac
, who follows up his breakout leading role in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” with this challenging portrayal of an immigrant trying to make it in 1981 New York while under brutal assault from his competitors.
Critics have come through for the movie, which won Best Film at the National Board of Review. No question that Chandor is a gifted filmmaker and “A Most Violent Year” has much to commend it, including outstanding performances by Isaac and Jessica Chastain as ambitious husband and wife business partners who are trying to get ahead despite every incentive to follow the corrupt practices of the period. The beautifully lensed (“Selma” DP Bradford Young
), atmospheric period movie calls up such Sidney Lumet classics as “Prince of the City” and “Serpico.”
Isaac replaced Javier Bardem as heating oil supplier Abel Morales at the last minute–Bardem may have had good reasons to withdraw after months of development with Chandor–and Chastain does as much as she can as Anna, the daughter of a mobster with dangerously long fingernails. Where was that colorful parental figure? The movie could have used more sizzle –or more time with district attorney David Oyelowo. Chastain’s big moment is when she emasculates her husband by whipping out a gun when he thinks a tire iron will do the job. Audiences applaud her, natch.
In “A Most Violent Year,” Chandor leaves out many details and explanations for his characters’ behavior; the movie raises more questions than it answers, including why the filmmaker was driven to make it.
I tried to find out more from Chandor and Isaac in the brief video
interview below; the rest of our Q & A is here.
Anne Thompson: What’s the meaning of the title?
I started delving into crime stats in New York City, and found a pattern. In 1991 it was the crack epidemic, in 1981 it was the entire city. But they’re not aware of it. Violence is just in their lives. whatever year I’m living, I’m doing my thing, I don’t know that it’s the most violent year ever while in the middle of it. That caused white flight, as people ran out of the city, and got the hell out of there. The tax base plummeted. I felt it was a transition year, with cool suits and clothing and the updo.
Did this challenge frighten you, Oscar?
Oscar Isaac: I was definitely excited. It’s scary because it’s dense and sophisticated, not easy, sprawling. And as overflowing with info as JC can be, sometimes it can be purposely impenetrable, maybe with a strategy and a long view in mind, and the momentum pushing forward.
The movie delves into what it means to be a man.
Chandor: I seem to have man issues, about not being masculine enough.
It’s great when she whips out her own gun and shoots the deer!
Chandor: I was able to get the audience to feel the same way— everybody claps!
Abel’s like a warrior who comes back home every night to report into his wife.
Chandor: They’re too busy for a night life. She’s the CFO. In ’81, in that environment with all the machismo, she’s running the company while she’s keeping his conscience clear. He’s the salesman. She’s running the place, but also playing the wife role, which is ingrained and comfortable.
Isaac: There’s a softness between them, though, he doesn’t do machismo.
He says, “OK, do it your way!”
Chandor: I was channeling my mom. I’m showing it to her and she sees the scene–“what do you want me to do with this money?” My mother says to the screen, “Use it!” just before Jessica says it. She saved it for an emergency.
You never see their parents.
Isaac: There was a scene with her father at one point.
Chandor: I love the idea that the couple have isolated themselves from the violence of the city, and humanity, driving around in those cars, protected by that armor.
Isaac: It’s an American story. You don’t see a character of Latin descent portrayed ever. In some sense he’s a folk hero, like Bob Dylan: you get on a train and reinvent your past and everything about yourself. It’s the melting pot.
Chandor: I saw this crazy doc with Henry Ford, who had some racist issues. Outside of his factories, new workers come in one weekend, to a huge melting pot, literally, and walk up a plank in their native garb, like Swiss liederhosen, go inside the kettle and a tailor makes them new business suits for Sunday service, they walk out applauded by the others working for Ford. You reset your heritage.
Where does Abel come from?
Candor: I reveal the back story in pieces, not all over.
Isaac: It’s not in the script, I kept coming up with what would be good. I tracked back to when he came to U.S from Colombia during La Violencia, the civil war, left in ’58/’59 as a kid running away from the violence in Bogata which catches up to him in NY, Catalina Moreno was from there, so I used that accent.
Did you tell him anything?
Chandor: I told him he arrived when he was 7 or 10, and asked him to fill in the details to in the script, because he has shed them.
There’s some comparisons to ‘Nightcrawler,” about the cost of succeeding in business.
Issac: It’s a funny thing, he takes the long view, it’s not the moral high ground. I read about sociopathic behavior in business. Something dehumanizing happens—I spoke with Jake Gyllenhaal about “Nightcrawler.” You make yourself into a mad man, treating humans as commodities. He’s not cold-blooded but calculated, because it’s a stupid road to go down. His rivals are looking for any reason to sink this guy, they want him to be the immigrant gangster, and he won’t do that. I got my eye on politics and the big picture and getting to Manhattan eventually.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.