A Most Violent Year

amvyThis script appealed to me because of the growing buzz around writer/director J.C. Chandor, and because of the subject matter presented in the previews. When site contributor Joel Dorland mentioned to me through twitter that he had liked it, and that it might be something in my “wheelhouse”… the possibility of a review gelled into certainty.

Mr. Dorland was correct. This script is in my wheelhouse. AMVY looks at humans in all their warts and still confirms their underlying goodness. Since this is my most basic belief [at a Nicomachean level], I could not fail to admire the intent behind the story. There are issues with the writing that will come out in the page notes [and two of the plot points struck me as psychologically insincere] but overall, Mr. Chandor’s story was a significant break from all the undeserving scripts I’ve read from this year’s Black List.

Thematically, we are presented with the life of Abel Morales. This is the second script in a row which gives its character a name meant to imply something about the story. [The silly palindromes attached to Bob and Anna Neven by Echo’s author being the previous instance.] We can conclude that Mr. Chandor means for Abel to be a good man because his name tells us this. He is literally “capable” when it comes to morals.

Not only are the immediate circumstances rough on Abel’s internal dedication to goodness, but everything in his proximate world also threatens that dedication. He has just put a down payment on a piece of land with ALL of his liquid fortune. He has 30 days to close this transaction, or else forfeit that fortune. The District Attorney of NYC has begun investigating his category of business [heating oil] and his singled him [amongst all the NYC heating oil dealers] out for prosecution. Lastly, someone within this industry is targeting his employees for terrorization. Drivers of Abel’s trucks are being beaten up and robbed at three times the rate of drivers of his competitor’s trucks. This makes his relationship with the Teamster’s union tenuous, and it causes his drivers to want to arm themselves as protection against the targeting. The combination of all this negative publicity conspires to make Abel’s bank skittish about guaranteeing the loan for the property he wants to buy.

Mr. Chandor recognizes that the biggest pressures come from the most loved sources, so he also subjects Abel to scrutiny by his wife. Anna Morales and Abel clearly love each other, but she measures Abel against the “toughness” of her father. She finds him wanting after the comparison.

It is safe to say that the author of this script has created a perfect crucible in which to weigh a good man’s commitment to goodness. If Abel maintains his principles amid all this pressure to abandon [at least] some of them, then humans are good. The Most Violent Year of the title IS the aberration.

Abel is Able to resist the dark side. He maintains his principles even when it appears that doing so will cost him all that he has worked for. Importantly, he solves his dilemma [mostly] by outsmarting his opponents—there is no DEM that swoops in from nowhere and aligns his planets for victory. I appreciate this fact [as a consumer of stories] because it signifies that belief in principle will be victorious for its own reasons [and not by divine intervention].

The theme of this script is not:

Everything happens for a reason

But, rather,

The reasons which constitute you produce coherent results

Or,

Everything happens because of the choices you make.

I could not help but like a script with that message.

Here are the page notes I took while reading. As usual, my notes from the read will be italicized, final thoughts will be [bracketed].

Pg. 5 ABEL walks out through the gate and down the abandoned
industrial street about 25 yards, then looks to his right. He
looks down at the cases in his hands, turns, and stands
looking into the neighboring site.

I’m liking this so far, but the description needs a once-over. Too much, first of all, and second the repetition of “looks” in that paragraph tells me there hasn’t been enough revision yet.

[I stand by this note from page 5. The description is overdone, and not always clear. I believe that a few more revisions would solve this problem. It would also make the script 5-7 pages shorter.]

Pg. 60 ABEL (CONT’D)
… is that when it feels scary to
jump Ian… that is exactly when
you must jump… or you risk ending
up staying in the same place your
whole life… and that I can’t do.

This script is about risk.

[Really, it’s about your reaction to risk. The way you handle crisis determines what you are as a person. Various models of crisis management are presented and rejected. The message becomes: define yourself before you meet your hurdles in life and you will be true to yourself.]

Pg. 62 He makes a small starting movement like he is going to hit it
over the head but he stops himself. He can’t quite do it.
Then he sits with the animal a beat longer.

We come in very close to ABEL and see his hand is struggling
to deliver the blow. Just as he grips the tire iron
waiting… BANG! BANG!

Two very loud GUNSHOTS go off from right over his shoulder.
He ducks for cover then slowly turns behind him. ANNA stands
there holding a small-yet-powerful Saturday Night Specialstyle
handgun. Smoke is still rising from the end of the
pistol. The deer is dead.

Strange scene. Very “author’s hand” kind of thing.

[I stand by this note as well. Were I the writer/director, I would have “killed this darling”. It is metaphorical to the point of being obscene. I do not think this was a good scene.]

Pg. 70 ANNA
Good for you. My husband is not my
father. Not even close. So if I
were you I would start treating us
with a little more respect or he’ll
make it our only mission to ruin
you. This was very disrespectful…
and you are not going to find a
fucking thing.

The buildup with “the father” is excellent.

[I did, however, expect a payoff from this buildup. There should have been a direct confrontation with the father since it is mentioned so many times. A minor failing but, still, a failing.]

Pg. 78 JULIAN looks at his hand and realizes he is still holding the
gun out in the open. He puts it away and then looks up at the
bridge that is hovering above him.

He knows he left his life as he knew it up on that bridge.

Very tense, but also strange.

[Julian’s trajectory is my biggest complaint with the story. Like the killing of the deer, it feels convenient to the point of unreality. I appreciate what the author was trying to do, but I’m not sure this storyquark succeeds.]

Pg. 78 As he falls out he/we see that he’s being dumped over the
edge of a cliff of some sort. He falls probably 10-12 feet,
into a pile of garbage. As he gathers himself and tries to
stand, we see he is standing in a massive landfill. He looks
around as the truck pulls away. He’s left totally alone.

Also tense. Not as strange.

[I liked the treatment the salesman receives, but he is completely abandoned after page 78. Another instance where additional revision would have paid dividends.]

Pg. 81 PETER FORENTE
I know you do. My father is in
jail… as you know. And I have
always wanted to conduct myself
differently than he did.

ABEL
And you have.

PETER FORENTE
Almost exclusively, yes. But I know
why he did what he did. Because at
the time it’s easier.

ABEL
But it’s not.

PETER FORENTE
Yes it is. You are a good man. I
will see what I can find out. This
isn’t good for any of us.

I like this exchange. It’s setting up our theme. Is it easier to do wrong than to do right?

[This script contains a lot of subtext on what defines a “good person”. All this subtext plays into the theme. It is one of the stronger elements of the script.]

Pg. 84 ARTHUR LEWIS
I wanted to come and talk to you in
person… We aren’t going to be
able to show up for you on Monday.
We can’t do the loan.

Pinning Abel in.

[Great job here, and throughout, of creating a claustrophobic environment for Abel. This claustrophobia drives the story and endlessly relates back to the theme. It is why the script is Good. It is also the number one thing the script can teach to aspiring writers. You create suspense when you trap your protagonist.]

Pg. 94 JULIAN
Aren’t you scared?

ABEL
Sometimes.

JULIAN
What do you do?

ABEL thinks this through long and hard.

ABEL
I have always been much more scared
of failure than anything else.

That is also thematic.

[I don’t think this is accurate. Abel is really most afraid of cheating to win. Were I the author, I would have amended this line in a revision]

Pg. 112 As he gets out of his car he sees LOUIS SERVIDIO jumping down
from the overturned cab and run off into the train yard. ABEL
looks at the crushed cab of the truck and sees the DRIVER has
been killed. There is a gun sitting on the dash of the truck
and ABEL looks and thinks. He then picks up the gun and
chases after LOUIS SERVIDIO.

In the distance he sees LOUIS SERVIDIO leave the yard and
head up into an elevated subway station.

I had hoped for a different resolution.

[This is the other plot point which bothered me. The author pushes Abel to the point of violence as resolution, and then has him back away. I get that he had to do this to resolve his script, but I would have preferred a more creative resolution.]

Pg. 114 ARNOLD KLINE
How much?

ABEL
I said…213,000.

ARNOLD KLINE
I’ll need a day.

ABEL
Okay.

ABEL gets ready to leave.

That one got me. And I missed the significance of the dye when he was doing it.

[This is a great twist that reads much bigger than its actual size. I love that the author had his protagonist use his natural abilities to outsmart his tormentors. It fits quite nicely with everything I say in Bowdlerizing Kant.]

Pg. 128 JULIAN
Probably a better chance than I
deserved.

ABEL
No.

JULIAN
Please take care of my family.

ABEL
Julian.

JULIAN
Please…

ABEL looks at him trying to read where this poor kid is at.

ABEL
I will.

Not sure I know why Julian kills himself?

[Still not sure I know why. Julian’s character is too important to be this half-formed psychologically.]

Pg. 131 ABEL
It doesn’t feel that way… But
please know that I have always
chosen the path that was the most
right.

A.D.A. LAWRENCE
The most right?

ABEL
Yes.

A.D.A. LAWRENCE
That one makes my head hurt a
little.

ABEL
The result is never in question for
me. Just what path do I take to get
there. And I have never questioned
my path. There is always one that
is most right. And that is what
this is.

A summation.

[And the reason why, ultimately, I find this script is…]

Rating: Worth Reading

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4 responses to “A Most Violent Year

  1. While I would not put this script high up on a must-read list I did think it was pretty good. Mr. Chandor writes compelling dialogue that really carries the reading momentum. With this and Margin Call, I’m excited about his trajectory — it’s so interesting that considering his facility there, he chose to do an essentially dialogue-less movie second. All his movies are must-watch for me now. He’s a keeper

    The description note is valid. I generally favour a simple style in scripts and this one gives us that — as a document it feels workman-like, made for shooting, little in the way of poetic license. It’s shot listing — don’t write like this, writers, because industry readers will not be impressed with your restraint — I think Mr. Chandor knows that the time period, shooting style, and production design are going to do all the work visually and he doesn’t need to push those things in the script, so he goes for simplicity, repition, etc to guide his eye. (Abel’s coats alone in the trailers are incredible, what with the coiffed hair it’s like he’s encased in armor and helmet the whole film, which makes sense)

    The really cool thing about it though is this: I thought you would like the script because of Abel’s seemingly humanistic choices. However I had an entirely different interpretation of this movie which is that Abel is infact a very sinister dude. What he has constructed here is a very careful facade of righteousness along with a willful ignorance of all that bad shit that had to take place to get him to this point. And this whole movie is about him trying to rein in his destructive impulses, or let other people do the dirty work for him, because that is the only path to get him where he wants to be. Perhaps he is a surrogate for the actual city of New York. Or he wants to be New York. He wants to enter that next strata of power broker, building himself into it, the meticulous, scrupled image of himself. Everyone thinks he’s good, people always telling him he’s good, he’s different then everyone else, because that’s what he wants everyone to think. It’s why he can’t be ever be a thug. Because what he wants to become can’t ever be a thug. I am almost certainly reaching but who cares it’s fun anyway that I thought this, so let’s just look at a few of your notes and how I saw them —

    Pg. 94. I thought Abel was warning Julian here. He’s telling him the thing that he should be most afraid of is failing Abel. This actually makes Julian’s fate resonate more.

    Pg. 62 Very important scene if you remove the more obvious cliche element. It’s their relationship — Able’s hands always stay clean, while his wife takes care of those things for him. It’s a choice, it’s understood from both sides, and they’re both still culpable.

    Pg. 113 He’s not pushed to the edge, he goes past it Abel pistol whips the hell out of Servidio with an audience (the woman in the car.) He doesn’t kill him because there’s no benefit in it — infact it’s better if Servidio is alive but broken — so his employer gets the message.

    PG. 70 This is a criticism I agree with. A Chekhov’s gun that is never fired. I wonder why he did this…intentional, excised from a previous draft? Maybe it is simply so we understand that this whole heating empire is built on a rotten skeleton.

    Pg. 78 You can see how, through my interpretation, this is a much stronger visual metaphor…and the fact that the character is discarded in the narrative says something about Abel, perhaps.

    Pg. 131. Has Abel’s path been the most right? It’s built on ignorance of his wife’s dealings. “Standard industry practice.” I felt like Abel’s summation was a justification for what was perhaps not the most right path.

    My delusions aside, can’t wait to watch it and see what it looks like.

    • Your interpretation is better than mine. I may have let my humanism guide me too far in my review! I hope that at some point enough people will read and comment here to draw out these nuances in scripts. This is what makes reading scripts enjoyable. Good points, well-supported, that make you think and learn as a writer.

      I will say that Abel’s righteousness bothered me also. I let it go, and [your interpretation inspires me to think] I may have undervalued Mr. Chandor’s point.

      Your make a fascinating and convincing argument. Thanks for recommending [and commenting] on this script.

  2. Yeah but Barish, if you don’t keep your glass half-full for all us half-empty sinners, what hope does the world have?

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