Most Violent Year: Chandor’s Morality Tale of Immigrants, Crime and the American Dream

a_most_violent_year_1_chastain_isaac_chandorA crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history, A Most Violent Year is made by the writer-director J.C. Chandor.

Starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), this gripping story plays out within a maze of rampant political and industry corruption plaguing the streets of the city in decay.


J.C. Chandor’s third feature examines one immigrant’s determined climb up a morally crooked ladder, where rivalries and unprovoked attacks threaten his business, family–and his own unwavering belief in the righteousness of his path.

With MOST VIOLENT YEAR, Chandor explores how the best intentions often yield to raw instinct, and where we are most vulnerable to compromise what we know to be right.

a_most_violent_year_2_chastain_chandorIn the four years since his Oscar nomination for MARGIN CALL, writer-director J.C. Chandor has established himself as a sophisticated storyteller and determined, formally audacious filmmaker. Each of his feature films—including the high-stakes financial thriller MARGIN CALL and the near-silent ocean survival epic ALL IS LOST—are built upon the notion of escalating crisis or meltdown, whether financial, professional, physical, or moral. Chandor invites us into the operating theater, where he cracks open the psyche of his characters: passionate, driven men, forced to exercise their skill in the face of narrow options and intense ethical quandaries.

With his latest feature, Chandor brings us once again to thresholds of danger and moral murkiness through the story of Abel Morales, an immigrant reaching for the American Dream in a city fraught with violence, corruption and decay.

a_most_violent_year_6_isaac_chandorA MOST VIOLENT YEAR plays out in and around the five boroughs during 1981 — then the most violent year on record for New York City. Coming off of the fuel crisis of the 1970s, the city underwent a dramatic transition from the booming metropolis of the 1920s through 1960s, virtually sputtering to a halt from budget cuts, soaring crime rates and political corruption. The dawn of the ’80s was the peak of so-called “white flight” to the safety of the surrounding suburbs, as a new wave of immigrants flooded the boroughs in search of opportunity, dramatically changing the city’s tenor and texture. Doing business in the epicenter of capitalism became fraught with tension and complexity; gone were the days of intricately established codes between City Hall, the Mafia and the business community. For small business owners trying to expand into an upper echelon of industry and commerce, it was a case of every man for himself.

a_most_violent_year_3_chastain_isaac_chandorThe film follows three days in the life of Abel Morales (Isaac), a Latin American immigrant who, together with his Brooklyn-bred wife Anna (Chastain), is building a small heating-oil enterprise purchased from Anna’s gangster father. Vowing to run the business legitimately, he discovers that the ladder to success is a crooked one.

At the film’s outset, Morales puts down a deposit on a plot of land in Brooklyn — tellingly, just across the river from Lower Manhattan, where global commerce to this day reigns supreme. On the property, existing fuel tanks will allow Abel to expand his company and gain a foothold over his competitors, a close-knit band of family enterprises scheming for a bigger share of the market. Tension mounts after thugs begin assaulting Abel’s small fleet of drivers, stealing their fuel, and selling it to illegitimate markets. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure stalks the wintry grounds of the Morales’ pristine new dream home in the tiny upstate suburb of Westchester.

a_most_violent_year_4_chastain_isaac_chandorTo make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) launches an investigation into the company’s accounting practices, threatening indictments on tax evasion and fraud. At his most vulnerable point, scrambling to pull together the balance on the land deposit, Abel grapples with a moral decision that threatens to destroy the business he has built, and the life he has created with such calculation.

“Abel Morales is a guy who believes in the American spirit of Manifest Destiny,” says producer Neal Dodson, who with Anna Gerb also produced Chandor’s previous features ALL IS LOST and MARGIN CALL. “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.”

Like Chandor’s previous features, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR explores the gray areas behind the choices we make to get ahead, the compromises we accept to protect our families, and the ramifications of our decisions on the lives of others. Equal parts an intimate examination of one ambitious outsider transforming himself into an American business magnate, and an epic glimpse at a familiar metropolis enduring transitional change during a dangerous period, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR analyzes the cost of doing business in America, and the lengths some will go to achieve success on their own resolute terms.

“With Abel Morales, I was interested in exploring themes of ruthless individuality and self-reliance,” says Chandor. “It’s my belief that to actually succeed in this country there are certain things you can and cannot do. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR examines the limits of upward mobility as Abel ascends the ladder towards greater success.” Adds Dodson: “Abel’s journey is one of risk equaling reward. He puts himself in the most vulnerable position in order to reap the greatest rewards, 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.”

Coming off of universal acclaim for his breakthrough role in the Coen Brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, lead actor Oscar Isaac was drawn to A MOST VIOLENT YEAR by Abel’s ambiguous nature and potential to descend into villainy. Over the course of the movie Morales is revealed to be a deeply complex and conflicted character — a family man with the potential to explode into violence when he’s pushed closer to brink of professional ruin.

“Abel is someone who seems like a pacifist during a time in New York City history where it felt like the Wild West,” says Isaac. “I saw him as a man of honor with gray areas. It was easy to envision him turning into a psychopath down the road. You see people ascending the professional ladder, running companies in which people are seen as products. These business leaders lose empathy over time, or they learn to compartmentalize their darker impulses. In Abel I saw an interesting juxtaposition: the wannabe hyper-capitalist desperate to attain the finer things in life who struggles with resorting to violence as a short-cut to grabbing the gold.”

Producer Dodson likens Morales to a self-identified Rockefeller who hasn’t quite reached the upper echelons of business and society, but who longs to enter them through honorable means. “In his mind, a Rockefeller doesn’t pick up a gun and shoot his competitor or defend his family through violence and retribution like the heroes of so many crime dramas we’ve seen before,” says Dodson. “A Rockefeller uses his brains — he uses strategy, business acumen and leverage. While there are car chases and foot races and shootouts on bridges in our movie, our main character — successfully or otherwise — is trying his best to resist the siren call of violence.” Adds Chandor, “Abel doesn’t feel that violence is the most effective way of getting business done. It’s something he hopes he doesn’t have to give into, a choice he chooses not to make — until his situation begins to escalate over the course of the movie. Will he give in and take the most expedient path or not?”

How the Story Began

For Chandor, the roots of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR began with a fascination for New York City in the year 1981, when the metropolis was a pressure-cooker on the verge of exploding. He also had a personal connection to the storied era in the form of several East Coast families that were friends of his parents or grandparents — people who had built small businesses like Abel’s Standard Heating Oil into greater entities, often grappling with similar triumphs or setbacks as they journeyed out of the start-up sector.

“Building a business from the ground up is probably what we do best in this country,” says Chandor. “Creatively it’s one of the most fascinating elements of who we are as Americans. But there is also a huge potential for failure.” He was struck by the fact that most of these small businesses were small family operations built on years of struggle. Some succeeded while others did not. Through these familial stories he began envisioning a husband and wife trying to build an empire amid some of the toughest times in New York City’s fabled history.

While researching the period, Chandor learned about a series of brazen hijackings in Manhattan’s garment district in Midtown, where truckloads of fancy clothing ready to be shipped out and sold in the marketplace were routinely attacked by marauding freelance thieves.

“Heating oil struck me as this fascinating entry-level business that an immigrant like Abel could reasonably take on as a career, rising through the ranks with persistence and hard work,” says Chandor. “Like the garment business, it’s dependent on trucking for delivery. That sector is also intriguing because it holds the capacity for illicit business dealings. Unlike clothing, stolen heating oil is untraceable. Taking it from a competitor became in some ways the perfect crime, because if you mix the stolen oil with your own holdings, profits could increase exponentially.”

Chandor’s next step during the writing phase was to develop Abel Morales into someone who was determined to grow his business ethically in an era rife with crime and corruption. As an outsider driven to succeed––for whom failure is not an option––the character had to stand out from everyone around him, including his own spouse. Chandor made Abel an immigrant whose wife was his partner both romantically and professionally.

“I saw Abel and Anna coming from two very different worlds,” says Chandor. “She controls the books in their company and her father owned the business before they bought him out. It probably wasn’t a terribly successful business initially — maybe two or three trucks. But over the course of a decade the Morales’ turn it into something substantial. In my backstory, I saw Anna’s father as leading a more traditional kind of gangster lifestyle, where he might have relied on violence as a means of collecting debts or putting pressure on enemies. Because he’s raising a young family, Abel represented the opposite of this way of life — 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.”

Surrounding Morales is the consigliere-like lawyer Andrew Walsh (Brooks), who helps ferry him through the intricate machinations of a business world that at times feels Mafia-like in its reach, and the young truck-driver protégé, Julian (Elyes Gabel), who is attacked by thugs and dumped on an expressway in an early scene. But Chandor was most interested in exploring New York City’s small business community across a melting pot of disparate ethnicities and social classes, including the Peter Forente character, a blue-blooded scion played in the movie by Alessandro Nivola, who is Abel’s friend and competitor. Peter was born into the family business and works half as hard as Abel while reaping greater proceeds.

Chandor also wanted to explore the theme of upward mobility through both Abel and Anna Morales, who move into their modern Westchester dream home during one of the story’s wintry opening scenes. “Despite disparate backgrounds, it was important that their business and personal relationships were meticulously entwined,” says Chandor. “Abel and Anna have a vibrant and passionate relationship, but they’re also very calculating with one another — and not entirely honest at times.” During a pivotal scene, Anna forces Abel to hide the firm’s accounting ledgers underneath their stunning new home during a visit from the Assistant District Attorney (Oyewolo), where Anna menacingly takes control of a threatening situation. As the story deepens in complexity and scope, Anna is revealed to be less than saintly and possibly even corrupt — leaving Abel to stand alone in a harsh and unforgiving world.