1981 was statistically one of the most violent years in New York. There were over 2100 murders, 60,000 aggravated assaults, 120,000 robberies, and a host of other crimes that brought the grand total of violent offenses for that year to 188,178. That’s the backdrop for J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film, aptly named A Most Violent Year.
But as bad as violent crime was in the early 80s, it was actually worse in the late 80s, back when Marty McFly was snorting all that coke in Manhattan night clubs. What was at its worst in ’80-81 was property crime – the only time in the last half century when there were more than one million incidents in a single year.
Despite the name, A Most Violent Year is not a terribly violent film. That’s to its credit, as it renders what violence there is more meaningful and real. When a truck driver gets pulled out of his truck at gunpoint, pistol-whipped, and left bloody on the street as the thieves make off with his cargo, we see the after-effects, first on his body, as he recovers in the hospital, his jaw wired shut, and later, as he tries to navigate the harsh reality of his job and the city, on his mind.
The main character of the film is Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman building his fortune in New York, played by Oscar Isaac. Abel owns a heating oil company, which he wants to expand by buying the property next door to his headquarters, which will give him his own shipping port. But there are forces working against him. The government is investigating him for possible corporate crimes. And someone keeps robbing his trucks and beating up his salesmen. Throughout the film, Abel struggles to avoid getting pulled into the vortex of violence and crime that surrounds him, as he tries to run his business in a more honest and honorable way. (His namesake, of course, is the biblical son of Adam, a righteous man slain by his violent brother.) And yet, when we see how the events all play out, we are left wondering just how clean he has really kept himself. This is because, just as there are different types of crimes in the statistics, there are different kinds of violence. And sometimes, keeping one’s own hands clean is just a way of making others get them dirty, and suffering the consequences.
This is not a fast-paced action movie, nor is it filled with the kind of senseless/sensational violence that came to predominate in much of 1980s cinema (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s also not really a period piece, since the filmmakers didn’t go to any great lengths to recreate the look and feel of early 80s NYC, although they did a perfectly acceptable job, better than some others.
A Most Violent Year is a character-driven story, which succeeds because of great performances by Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and the whole rest of the cast. There are no weak links in the chain. New York City is only one of those characters, and one can fairly easily imagine the story taking place in much the same way in another city and another time. The City doesn’t loudly announce its presence to us, such as in Night of the Juggler when Lieutenant Tonelli says, “It’s gonna be another goddam New York day.” Nor does it virtually steal the whole show as in Larry Cohen’s magisterial Q The Winged Serpent. But like a good supporting actor, it plays its part in the story, and it plays it well.
The production team behind A Most Violent Year put together an excellent website full of short articles about various aspects of New York City circa 1981. It’s unfortunate that they stopped posting new material to it some time ago, as they’ve just barely scratched the surface of these vast depths. But hey, that’s why we’re here.
They also put together this nice little documentary about NYC 1981, full of interviews with people who lived through that most violent year.