New York City’s reputation as one of the greatest burgs on the planet tends to gloss over its less glamorous notoriety as a former bedrock for violent crime. Today’s Big Apple is a safer place by far, but a quick rear view glance at police statistics from the mid 1970s to the late ’80s paints a grim portrait of its landscape; countless films of the era, from Escape From New York to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, chronicle the metropolis’ decline in their own fashion.

A Most Violent Year,  the latest picture from J.C. Chandor, presents a modern look at that period in New York’s history, honing in specifically on 1981 as its focal point. The name certainly fits the times; 1981 saw some of the decade’s highest rates of homicide and robbery (and total recorded offenses). Not a great time to be a New Yorker.

But Chandor doesn’t appear to have any specific incidents or stories of infamy that he’s interested in dramatizing for the big screen. Instead, he’s chosen to follow an immigrant man, Abel (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis), as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) attempt to eke out a living against the backdrop of NYC’s burgeoning culture of violence; turns out that’s easier said than done, though as plot details are under wraps, their story’s specifics remain elusive.

A Most Violent Year Isaacs Chastain A Most Violent Year Teaser Trailer: Oscar Isaacs American Dream

If A Most Violent Year‘s first trailer (seen above) hints at anything, though, it’s that Abel may be more of a participant in that culture than not. The clip is elliptical, giving away little, but it reveals enough that we see Isaac assaulting a man, wielding a pistol, and denying accusations of his complicity in unnamed criminal cases. Is he a dishonest gangster, contrary to Anna’s claims? Or is he a truly good man drawn into a harsh world by circumstances beyond his control? That’s probably Chandor’s main drive here: peeling back the layers on Abel so we can see what kind of person he is beneath.

No matter what direction A Most Violent Year takes, the pedigree alone makes it one of the last must-sees of the year. Isaac (recently cast in Star Wars: Episode VII) and Chastain (who also appears in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Chris Nolan’s forthcoming Interstellar) are both well-proven talents, and Chandor’s 2013 film All is Lost drew all kinds of critical acclaim. Sounds like a collaboration well worth a watch.

A Most Violent Year arrives in NY and LA theaters on December 31st 2014, and will expand nationally throughout January 2015.

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