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J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is the rare crime drama that balances epic and intimate themes well. Chandor’s screenplay makes big statements on capitalism and the American dream. But it’s also microcosmic in its scale, a character study of Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) struggle to protect and grow his heating-oil business.
Abel built his company legitimately, and he takes pride in the righteousness of his decisions. Yet given external threats to his company, AMVY asks how much Abel will give into gangster-like behavior to stay ahead.
As underlined by the title, time and place is key to Abel’s predicament. New York City in 1981 had record high crime rates and was in the midst of a recession. Capturing the city rests on DP Bradford Young. His cinematography is authentic and realistic; rough edges, industrial sprawl and graffiti abound.
Yet the way he frames New York’s grit and danger is often gorgeous. Young described his work on AMVY to American Cinematographer as “beauty tucked within all this decay.” It’s a complement to Abel’s turmoil caught between moral and amoral paths.
On this post we’ll focus on several of Young’s wide shots. With careful composition and positional techniques, Young gives New York both dignity and menace.
We start with Abel heading off to work in the film’s opening minutes. On paper, it’s just our main character walking through a nondescript parking lot. But notice the colors – tans on the far left car and beiges on the walls play off Abel’s camel coat. The grays of the other car, warehouse doors, and pavement match Abel’s slacks. The reflection in the water puddle and vertical lines of the gray doors reinforce Abel’s posture. It’s subtle, but the harmony portrays a man in his element.
Seconds later we cut to where Abel’s headed, a business deal with his lawyer Andrew (Albert Brooks). Notice how many lines visually converge on Andrew and his car. On the left, the back building and parking gate slant down to bottom right. The staircase on the white oil stacks on frame right wind down into Andrew’s car. And a shorter oil tanker behind Andrew provides a nice flat “gap” where the two sides converge. Young guides our eye for both practical and aesthetic effect.
Abel examines a once stolen, now discarded, oil truck. There’s the obvious prettiness of filming near sunset. But the three vehicles in frame have positional balance with each other. Each covers a major factor in Abel’s life. The cop car represents law and morality, the Benz wealth (and arguably greed), the truck oil. Abel’s stuck in the middle on top, at the crossroads of what actions to take next.
Both shots here lean heavily on symmetry. On the former we see Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) at home after a failed break in attempt. The latter shows Abel in a heated work debate. Both are tasteful, but the strong usage of vertical lines – the lights in the first shot, trucks in the second – are literally boxing the characters in. Abel’s family and business are under pressure from all sides.
At AMVY’s halfway point, one of Abel’s drivers is on the run from the cops. Young cuts wide to a vehicle or Steadicam assisted follow shot. Two lanes of traffic frame frame the driver on the Queensboro Bridge, with Manhattan in the background. The symmetry, skyline, and soft lighting is flattering. But the vertical lines from the cars, road, and lights are visually trapping the driver.
A moment later the driver heads into a tower off the bridge. Industrial smokestacks, beams, and graffiti fill the frame. Yet there’s still compositional beauty to the shot. Strong diagonal lines from the beams frame and guide our eye to the door.
Abel chases after a criminal on foot. Young takes an unorthodox approach to this action scene. Instead of boilerplate quick cuts and handheld, Young films most of this chase with wide angles and clean, slow pans. An immense building frames our characters. It’s decrepit and stripped apart, but the angle and sheer size adds grandeur.
Even at the moment Abel finally catches up with his target, the camera stays unusually distant before finally cutting in close. Again Young is clearly drawing attention to the greater setting. Graffiti covers the subway cars, with old paint on the station walls. But the warm light, arches, and green columns convey nostalgia for an older New York.
It’s a testament to AMVY’s cinematography that New York feels like a character alongside the main performers. It’s a big factor in keeping the audience engaged.
I’m not the only one with such praise. Bradford Young’s one-two punch of AMVY and Selma (released within a week of AMVY) made Hollywood studios take notice as well. His upcoming docket includes Denis Villeneue’s Arrival later this year and an untitled Star Wars film for 2018. A huge budget in a new genre could give many pause. Yet I’ve got high confidence Young’s output for science fiction will remain as arresting as it was capturing a New York crime drama. He’s a cinematographer to watch.