Technically, A Most Violent Year isn’t set during New York City’s most violent year. According to writer/director J.C. Chandor, that would be 1991—when the crack epidemic led to a spike in violent crime in the city’s worst neighborhoods.

But 1981, in which his film is set, was one of the most dangerous years on record. New York was emerging from the Taxi Driver 1970s, when President Gerald Ford and the federal government had essentially told the bankrupt city to drop dead. “Even though the country was starting to rebound a little bit by then, New York City was still dealing with the horrible repercussions of all the cutbacks of the ’70s,” says Chandor. “It also turns out that it’s just an amazing transition year, with [President] Reagan coming into office. So it just felt like a real explosive time in the city where optimism was starting to creep in again.”

That optimism comes through in the character of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious fuel-oil businessman poised to make a move that will allow him to strangle the competition. He and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have always been a team of opposites and one of equals—he provides the vision, while she provides the occasional iron fist in a velvet glove. “One of my favorite things in the movie is that you aren’t quite sure who she is, what she is, and what she really cares about,” says Chandor. “Then, as the movie plays along, you start to realize what an important role she actually played in growing that business, considering the kind of machismo that’s involved in those kinds of businesses.”

The film’s new trailer digs into that relationship, which is tested when rough-and-tumble forces apply pressure to their grand scheme.

Chastain and Isaac make for a perfect couple, perhaps because they’ve known each other since they were classmates at New York’s Juilliard School. “There was kind of this great history and familiarity between the two of them,” says Chandor. “It was just kind of a dream for a director, because essentially, they had met at the same time in their own lives as the characters did.”

A Most Violent Year premieres this week at AFI Fest and opens in theaters on Dec. 31.

A Most Violent Year
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes
  • J.C. Chandor