J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film A Most Violent Year follows Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) as he negotiates a business deal to purchase an oil terminal located on Brooklyn’s east river. Abel has 30 days from the signing date to pay the cost of the property in full, or risk losing his 40% down payment. However, a criminal investigation brought against Abel’s company, Standard Heating & Oil, complicates his ability to receive traditional bank loans. Abel must then acquire the funds through less conventional (and less legal) means. Abel is an immigrant, a husband to his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), a father to three daughters, and a rising industrialist who by all appearances has captured the American dream. But, as the title suggests, Abel’s New York is less than hospitable. The film takes place in the first few weeks of 1981, a year that saw an unprecedented (and not since reached) number of murders and robberies in New York City. Abel faces competition within a corrupt industry where undercutting costs, robbery, and money laundering are means of survival. AMVY casts New York as a visceral, violent character within the story and suggests that the city’s temperament both influences and is influenced by its characters.
The film opens with a fade from black to an elastic tracking shot of pavement that whirls around to show a quiet, unassuming suburban neighbourhood. This is followed by a cut to Abel, featured in long shot, running through the neighbourhood. This camera work causes the viewer to immediately question what Abel is running away from and what he is running toward, as well as establishing the film’s deliberate pacing. This type of long take, wide angled, and free moving cinematography comes to typify Chandor’s film, often positioning the city not just as a place where action happens, but also as a space that is itself active. Static character close-ups juxtapose this sense of movement throughout space and suggest that the characters possess control, while the space remains unfixed. Chandor favours point-of-view shots that tie the viewer’s experience of the filmic space to character subjectivity, thus allowing the film’s image to explain character emotion and action. Extensive camera movement allows the film to unfasten the viewer and establish a more complete view of the filmic image—in this case placing the viewer as if directly within the setting itself. The use of shaky, handheld camera work indicates that there is something distinctly unbalanced and chaotic about the space, and consequently about the characters who inhabit it. Through the use of cinematographic properties specifically, the city transforms from a neutral background into a subjective character that influences both plot development and how the viewer reads onscreen action.
Through the pointed construction of space, Chandor presents New York as a paradox: manoeuvrable by its residents, but manipulative of those who live within it. While Abel has the ability to exploit the city as a tool for his business’ expansion, this opportunity seems to carry with it increased violence and danger. When anonymous thieves hijack Abel’s transport trucks, Abel approaches the city’s district attorney to ask for protection. He is told that the crimes against his employees are small and unimportant in a city filled with violent crime. Subsequently, Abel is pressured by his wife, his lawyer, and his suppliers to arm his drivers with guns as a way to protect the individuals and the company against forces which are too corrupt for the legitimate justice system to handle. However, by giving his drivers guns, Abel becomes responsible for the deaths of others at the hands of his employees. Consequently, the cycles of violence and corruption that plague the city are perpetuated and justified as means of survival.
Part of what makes AMVY so effective as a film about corruption and collapse is its use of the form of the film as a tool for relaying theme. The jarring camera movement, the decentred framing, and the construction of colour motifs bring attention to the way in which the film was made, that the film is a film, not simply a reflection of reality. When watching this film, it is impossible to ignore the deliberate placement of the camera, to act like the film’s visual world is neutral. Unlike the tendency in classical Hollywood cinema to erase the influence of form on the narrative, this film employs the radical style as a political message. AMVY’s impact on the viewer is twofold: the film is both a story about how places and eras are shaped by the people who inhabit them, but also a story about how corruption and decay can easily be masked by the right frame. While the plot and story present corruption as a hidden phenomenon, the film’s aesthetic style insists that corruption is present, almost omnisciently so, in the physical realm of the film. Effectively, the film’s narrative tendencies understand the New York space as a form of narrator that shapes the experience of the viewer.
Throughout the film, New York becomes itself a character, both imposing itself into the life of the protagonist and changing throughout the film. Instead of remaining a backdrop to the film’s action, the city space comes to shape how its characters behave, but is also shaped by its people. The cycles of violence that exist in the film are both a product of the inhabitants, but the city’s violent nature similarly supports the violence. In many ways, Abel’s greatest opponent is the city itself. New York, so often painted as a vision of order, civilization, and control, becomes wild and chaotic, recalling both the film noir, with its preoccupation with the dirty and dark city landscape, as well as the western, with its expansive shots of the new frontier. AMVY becomes a mash-up of the different visions of America imposed onto an otherwise iconic setting. But the thing about the New York of Chandor’s film is that it’s an almost addictive place, one that its people love. Despite how dangerous, dirty, or corrupt the city looks or feels, there remains something almost charismatic about the film’s setting, and what becomes memorable about the film is how Abel’s story of collapse, disaster, and eventual rise mirrors the story of New York—a city that has suffered through periods of intense crime, financial collapse, natural disaster, yet still remains iconic for its successes.
At first glance, AMVY seems to be just another historical drama, and its New York setting seems to be just an allegory. Yet, it’s startling to watch this historical drama about the New York from 30 years in the past and see echoes of its corruption and decay in that same city today. As we watch this drama about the destruction of justice and order on film screens, the same sort of problems are echoed by the news: racial violence, gun law disputes, copyright infringement rulings, political corruption investigations, the failed war on drugs, the rise in bankruptcy.
But the New York of AMVY is just one vision of New York. Other stories imagine the city differently. Joan Didion spoke of being enamoured of the city and her disillusionment with its cruelty. Martin Scorsese has shown off the city numerous times—from Travis Bickle’s night-time New York in Taxi Driver to Jordan Belfort’s skyscapered backdrop in The Wolf of Wall Street. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s captures a sense of the city’s depression and its dreaminess. There are Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Wharton’s Age of Innocence. All of these iterations of New York suggest that, underneath the city’s exterior, there’s something fantastic and ambitious and crazy about it. Maybe we love to read about it because it’s something we can’t control, understand, or even predict. Maybe we keep coming back to stories about it because it’s never just another neutral place that exists in the backdrop of life. Instead, it insists that it’s part of what makes these stories so interesting.