"A Most Violent Year" has all the glamour of a classic gangster film. But its plot sidesteps the violence motif to explore the American dream through the eyes of its Latino hero.
The slow-burn drama has its moments of action, most notably with a climactic chase scene that showcases the grit of New York City in 1981. But overall, the film portrays the steady unraveling of a Latino immigrant’s business and peace of mind during what is statistically the most violent year in city history.
Director and writer J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All Is Lost”) is no stranger to writing films that focus on a particular moment in a character’s life and presenting it on a grand scale. He calls it “operatic.”
Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac, 35, (“Inside Llewyn Davis) leads the cast as Abel Morales, a righteous Latino immigrant who finds his ambition at odds with his sense of morality as his family’s well-being and the growth of his heating oil business are continually threatened by factors outside of his control.
Chandor, an Oscar-nominated director, spoke to The Huffington Post recently about how the film portrays the dark reality of realizing the American dream in a cutthroat capitalist city, and why he always envisioned his hero as a Latino immigrant.
“This was a story I’ve probably been building for four, five years about a husband and wife couple, immigrant, first- or second-generation,” Chandor said. “And probably in that early period realizing that it might be neat just to really kind of cross-section the American diaspora a little bit and have that be a mixed-nationality marriage. Because that’s the way this country works. We all kind of come here and eventually combine ourselves with each other in one way shape or form. It’s the great thing about human beings.”
After refining the husband-wife storyline, Chandor said he sought to couple the narrative with ideas of violence and how it’s portrayed in movies he’s seen over the years. In the end, Chandor decided he would set the film in 1981 -- New York's most violent year.
Actor Javier Bardem was originally tapped for the role of Abel Morales, but Chandor said the two failed to agree on where they wanted to take the character. Jessica Chastain (who plays wife Anna Morales) then recommended Isaac, her friend and former Juilliard schoolmate.
Chandor said he always intended Abel Morales to be Latino.
“I wanted the character to be representative of the largest group of immigrants. In the last 40 years, that’s the Latino wave,” Chandor said. “I also wanted [the film] to be representational and sort of operatic, and so that felt like a natural choice. And also, frankly, I’m sort of fascinated by American representations of masculinity and what that means. There are these wonderful series of stereotypes, and some of them quite destructive and other ones true like any stereotype about Latin men. Especially [those] that come to the United States and how they achieve this success. This sort of Scarface myth of the hot-tempered Latin male who can’t control himself when it’s really the push-comes-to-shove kind of thing.
“[And] when I was really bringing the story together with the violent angle, I thought it would be a really cool turn of events, where you kind of are just waiting for this guy the whole movie to just lose his fucking top and just shoot someone,” the director added. “It’s what the whole movie is structured on.”
Abel Morales’ internal struggles to stay on what the character calls “the path that is most right” are hindered by factors that show the realities of the American dream. One obstacle is his employee, Julian, a Latino driver in the oil company who Morales initially wants to help find the same success he has enjoyed, but later turns away for the sake of his business.
“It’s been obviously this sort of wonderful Latino immigration in the United States and all that wonderful new energy and optmism,” Chandor said. “But yet there’s this reality of that with the wonderful success and stability that so many of us have been able to achieve here, it also comes on the back of a lot of people who didn’t and weren’t lucky or didn’t have the skill set or had the skill set, but weren’t lucky.”
While the film seems to explore the darkness of an immigrant’s quest for his American dream, it’s really about testing the limits of a man’s ambition.
“The American Dream in my mind is just obsessive Americans naming something that’s actually a human trait, which is ambition,” Chandor said. “So it goes all the way back to the beginning of humankind, when there’s three people living in a valley and then there’s suddenly 100 people living in the valley and some people realize, 'We gotta climb over this hill to find somewhere else to plant some corn ‘cause we’ve over-planted here,' so the ambitious people are the ones that say, ‘Well, let’s go.’
“America is just that, but it’s a lot of us all gathered in one, and so we’re a pretty ambitious lot,” Chandor continued. “But essentially, that is what is at that core of the American experience, and so you know I was looking for a wonderful tool to tell that story and I think in these guys I hopefully found it.”
Chandor didn’t shy away from delving into Abel Morales’ heritage, either. Notably, the director includes an all-Spanish scene with Julian’s sister (Catalina Sandino Moreno) that he said helps viewers realize the role of his heritage in his plans to succeed.
“Well, that scene is one of my favorites in the entire movie," Chandor said. “What I wanted to do is remind the audience late in the movie who he was again. ... Oscar and I worked out his backstory -- he probably came to the United States when he was between 7 and 10 or 11 years old. At that point, in the late-'50s, when he would’ve come here, for his goal to be a successful businessman, you had to sort of sand away your accent and change your garb. He’s almost dressed in this WASP stock broker outfit. Oscar and I always thought that he probably over-assimilated. People are always talking about assimilation, but he probably stripped too much of his heritage away for his own emotional happiness. But who knows? It’s Abel’s life. We’re not going to judge him too harshly on it.
“What that scene is communicating to you there is he’s a pragmatic person,” Chandor continued. “So he’s not going to sit there and struggle through a conversation with her in [English]. He’s there for business.”
“A Most Violent Year” premiered with a limited release on Dec. 31 and was named film of the year by the National Board Of Review, with Isaac and Chastain receiving awards for best actor and best supporting actress, respectively. Aside from Chastain's Golden Globe nomination for her role, the movie has been largely overlooked by major awards this season.
Chandor, a New Jersey native, said Abel Morales' experience reflects the stories of many immigrants, including one he witnessed.
“Well anyone who has a realistic understanding of the immigrant experience knows that some people go mad from it because you’re away from your home, it’s a horrible thing,” Chandor said. “I use to live next to these guys, where four of them lived in one little room and they would rotate in and out of there, and it was only two beds and they basically worked shifts. We’d see one come in to this little apartment building where we had an apartment for a while, and there was like a rotation.
“And so [Julian is] there to remind Abel and remind us that we’re very fortunate.” Chandor added. “My family came here as immigrants, just like most of us did, and I’m very fortunate that I am living off of those sort of foundations that they laid for me."
“A Most Violent Year” opens at theaters nationwide on Friday.