A Most Violent Year: J.C. Chandor on Violence and Pragmatism
Oscar-nominated filmmaker J.C. Chandor makes fascinating films about men in a state of crisis. His first feature, Margin Call, follows a team of investment bankers on the night they learn the financial crisis is imminent, and his second, All is Lost, depicts a mysterious yachtsman played by Robert Redford who struggles to survive a disaster at sea.
A Most Violent Year is J.C. Chandor’s third critically-acclaimed feature, which stars Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) as Abel Morales, a New York City entrepreneur in 1981, whose truck drivers are under attack by armed hijackers, whose accounts are under investigation by the government, and whose own wife (Jessica Chastain) wants him to take violent measures to protect their investments. Abel refuses to resort to violence, which threatens to set their whole future on fire, and calls into question whether the right thing to do is simply too difficult to bother with.
With A Most Violent Year now on home video, we got J.C. Chandor on the phone to talk about his complex new drama, whether it qualifies as crime movie, the mystery of what’s going through Abel Morales’ head, and J.C. Chandor’s own creative process as he balances his family and the writing of his next, mysterious project.
CraveOnline: Do you look at A Most Violent Year as a genre movie? Is it a mob movie, or a crime movie, or is it something entirely different in your eyes?
J.C. Chandor: I don’t know! I think that’s a very interesting question. I haven’t really thought about it, meaning specifically about it. I certainly know that I was using structural elements of the sort of gangster, mob [movies], almost going back to the movies of the ‘30s, so I certainly see it in that tradition, for sure.
But I think in a way, the best way to answer that is, when I’m writing it I am literally in the guy, so he’s not in a gangster movie. I don’t know if that makes sense. [Laughs.] When I was writing it I wasn’t thinking that because the fun thing is, I’m just trying to do… this is a guy in the middle of this. It’s one of those ones where it’s almost like the character’s like, “I can’t believe I’m in the middle of a gangster movie,” right? “How did my life turn into this?” But I certainly think it would be correct to say that it’s in that genre.
So it’s correct to say it’s in that genre…
Yeah! I think so, but what it’s using… Obviously, the whole undercurrent of the movie is that at every turn, both she, he and everyone around you… bad guys aren’t quite bad. They’re giving people directions. [Laughs.] As the movie goes on, I start to explain obviously that everything that you would be expecting, but there’s all these little turns when people are given the choice, or they go left or right to do different things.
That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about Abel Morales. It seems like he’s desperately trying not to get wrapped up in the more criminal element. But it is his job. He’s at least cheating on his taxes, right?
I think the best way to say would be, at that point in time, and probably still today, but I know certainly at that point that the tax code was onerous and ridiculous and especially in fuel oil, it’s heavily, heavily taxed. Like any sales tax, the government sort of asks you to collect it on their behalf, so you have to hold it for four months or whatever it is, quarterly, and then you’ve got to pay them the money. So in that interim period, there’s substantially a lot of opportunities with the accounting and how long you’re holding things […] so I think it would always be deemed “creative accounting,” it’s just a matter of do you get caught?
But that, absolutely. It was definitely old days, and in my mind that was about it. They had crossed the line, [Abel] had stuck his head in the sand when she probably wanted to talk to him about it at times, which she does a couple times in the movie. There’s one time where he gets a chance where she basically asks a follow-up question, and he doesn’t. I think he’s allowing himself to stay a little bit in the dark about it so he can sell with a clear conscious.
That conscious is something that fascinates me too. I interviewed Oscar Isaac about his character when the film came out in theaters, and I told him that I looked at Abel Morales as a guy who’s trying to stay as ethical as possible, at least not crossing the line to violence. And he said he’s interpreting it more as a guy who’s just trying to be pragmatic.
Yeah, I think [that] is what the character believes he’s doing, but I think inherent in that, certainly making the right choice and not crossing certain lines… we all know cheating on our taxes is wrong and you can go to jail for it, but society shouldn’t and doesn’t treat it the same way as killing your neighbor. [Laughs.] So I think he is struggling with where his relationship is with the law and with his business and with everything, which is the whole movie. It’s fascinating.
So Oscar’s character, the way Oscar plays it is exactly that. For him it would have been purely pragmatic as opposed to, obviously, also realizing it’s what’s right.