New York City hasn’t always been just the backdrop for romantic comedies and a playground for privileged kids — for much of the 1970s and ‘80s, the city struggled with an influx of drugs and the highest murder rate it’s ever seen. Its urban landscape was also plagued by serial killers and budget shortages. Looking back, the 1981 film Escape from New York seems practically meta.
And this is the historical context for J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, starring Golden Globe Winners Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as Abel and Anna Morales. Abel is an immigrant trying to live out the American dream: he and his wife, Anna, have scraped to build their oil-heating business. When the city’s crime wave threatens to crash over their hard-won success, the couple is left to sink or swim.
The Guatemalan-born Isaac, of Inside Llewyn Davis and Che, steps up as the lead, playing Abel as an industrious business man and devoted family man, with just a hint of Tony Montana (that accent, come on). Abel seems downright hurt by the attacks on his trucks and employees, especially since he thinks he’s been a model citizen: “I have always taken the path that is most right. The result is never in question for me.” It’s uncertain whether Abel’s business is being singled out because of his immigrant origins, but it will be interesting to see what his response to being unwelcome in his new homeland will be.
A Most Violent Year will open the AFI Fest on November 6, and will be released in theaters on December 31.