It’s impossible to get a great story out of your head, especially when it influences you creatively and inspires you to tell stories of your own. Great works of literature, art, theater and film are so ingrained in my memory, I sometimes find myself quoting them accidentally, or recalling moments from them as vivid as a memory. I thought about this while watching J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, which feels reconstructed from multiple viewings and a lifelong affection to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. I don’t know if that movie was the direct inspiration for Chandor but it certainly looks that way.
Oscar Isaac stars as a Abel Morales, a New York businessman who is trying to get his oil company established as a respectable, consistent entity. He finds his trucks are constantly being hijacked by competitors, who all greet him with smiles and insist they’re not the ones ripping him off. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by Jessica Chastain), isn’t as tactful, as her hot temper and noted criminal father sometimes come up in threatening ways in conversation. Morales strives to keep his business legitimate and free of corruption but can’t seemingly find a way to make an “honest” living in the Big Apple of the 1980s, when loyalties were bought and crime rates were absurdly high.
Even with the early ’80s setting, A Most Violent Year has close thematic and narrative ties to The Godfather, as well as other tales of criminal behavior that stemmed from tough guys struggling to do the right thing and failing. Chandor’s reserved approach worked for his debut film, Margin Call, but not for a gangster drama. Movies dealing with the mafia, criminals on the rise or established crime families don’t have to be sensational or bloody, but they shouldn’t feel like a stage play, either.
Isaac’s commanding performance is impressive, though his role keeps most of his character’s moral outrage internalized. Making Abel resemble Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is a sort of clever, only that his performance is nowhere near as interesting as Pacino’s iconic turn. Chastain is exceptional, playing a wife and mother far more dangerous than her husband, as she appears more willing to embrace the danger involved. Albert Brooks appears in another joke-free, deadly serious supporting role, but the part is nowhere near as rich as his villainous turn in Drive.
The light brown cinematography resembles Gordon Willis’ legendarily soupy look for The Godfather, and many scenes evoke the feel of Puzo’s classic tale but Coppola never made a film so dull. It’s slow and quiet, to the point where it becomes more sleep inducing than moody. We’ve seen much of this before, not only in the Godfather trilogy but in other big city crime films like American Gangster and Carlito’s Way. Chandor’s film is smaller, but even most middle of the road Mean Streets wannabees have more to offer and stick in the mind with greater clarity afterwards.
This doesn’t have the required fire in its belly and lacks the mastery of the craft that Chandor brought to his technical tour de force, last year’s All Is Lost with Robert Redford. Isaac and Chastain work well together but they lack genuine chemistry, whereas Pacino and Diane Keaton never had that problem (the comparison isn’t unfair, since Chandor’s film owes so much to The Godfather).
Chandor stages a great chase scene and his one-on-one confrontations are crispy (especially Chastain’s taunting of the D.A. who abruptly searched her home). Yet, his film maintained, at best, a loose grip on me.
Early on, there’s a moment where Isaac is seen standing atop one of his trucks, his frame towering mightily against the cityscape behind him. We get it. The image is both unnecessary and obvious. The message Chandor’s film is pushing, how crime may be an essential element in obtaining the American Dream, is old. In every way, Don Corleone got there first.