Forty-two years after its debut, The Godfather casts a long shadow over American cinema. To see how far it stretches, one need only head to the theaters on December 31, when A Most Violent Year helps bid farewell to 2014 with a potent dose of Coppola-inspired crime drama.
Even more than James Gray’s The Immigrant—whose 1920s setting, immigrant-experience narrative, and sumptuously nostalgic cinematography recall The Godfather Part II—J.C. Chandor’s latest film is, in terms of form and content, deeply indebted to the tale of the Corleone clan. The story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a heating-oil businessman in 1981 New York City attempting to expand his operation while trying to avoid partaking in the illicit activities that are par for his industry’s course, A Most Violent Year can lay claim to many 1970s-era ancestors, including the works of Sidney Lumet. Yet fundamentally, it’s a film that’s not only inspired by Coppola’s masterpiece, but one whose canny revisions to its template (and concerns) make it something akin to an alternate-reality version of the first two Godfathers.
A Most Violent Year concerns a child of immigrants, Abel, engaged in a business that exists thanks to his family—in this case, his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain), who more than casually implies that Abel got his start in heating oil thanks to her father, a man who’s never seen but, it’s made clear, was involved in organized crime. Thus, like Michael Corleone, Abel is a man living with a paternal figure looming over his life. And, like Michael, Abel is a man desperate to distance himself from that father, and to set a course for himself that doesn’t include getting his hands dirty. To that end, Abel endeavors to consummate a strategically crucial deal to acquire waterfront property without resorting to criminal tactics, even though his rivals have begun hijacking his trucks at gunpoint and stealing his oil, thereby putting him in financial jeopardy and under increasing pressure from both Anna and his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), to take drastic action.
Director Chandor situates his material in the deep freeze of winter 1981, reportedly the most violent year in New York City’s history, and that setting provides a fittingly bleak period backdrop for a tale that, as in The Godfather, is about the intertwined relationship between family and business, loyalty and responsibility, noble idealism and whatever-it-takes practicality. Struggling to navigate a stew of competing priorities and allegiances, Abel comes across as a kindred spirit to the Michael of the original Godfather, believing that upstanding behavior is the surest path to profitability (and a just life).
However, unlike Michael, who by the first Godfather’s conclusion has succumbed to his father’s dark Mafioso side, Abel remains committed to his values throughout A Most Violent Year, thus revealing him to be the flip-side to his Corleone twin. That’s most strongly felt when it comes to the act of looking someone in the eye, which proves central to both Abel and Michael—whereas Abel tells his new employees to do so with customers in order to gain trust and close deals (i.e. bridge gaps), Michael famously, confronts Fredo face-to-face in The Godfather Part II in order to fatally sever ties.
Further underlining A Most Violent Year’s connection to Coppola’s classic is the fact that Abel has his own consigliere (à la Michael and his brother Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall) in the form of Brooks’s Walsh. That Walsh is an advisor pushing Abel to consider his illegal options, while Tom is the voice of reason in the ear of the increasingly corrupt Michael, further shows how Chandor’s film embraces The Godfather’s dynamics and yet turns them on their head.
Such a storytelling strategy also applies to Abel’s wife Anna, whom Chastain embodies with a regal, steely ruthlessness that peaks during a car crash involving a deer, and the subsequent marital argument it spawns. Unlike Michael’s saintly wife Kaye (Diane Keaton), the symbolic embodiment of the pure life on which he shuts the door at the end of The Godfather, Anna is the devil on Abel’s shoulder, cajoling him to be more of a man (tougher, merciless) and to do whatever it takes to get ahead.
Chandor’s aesthetics are less an inversion of Coppola’s than a subtle homage to them, be it Bradford Young’s cinematography (which favors rich mahogany hues, murky shadows, and glaringly bright lights) or Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s expert costume design, which especially in the case of Abel’s tan overcoat and slicked back hair, quite clearly shout-out to the fashion of Michael Corleone. Again, though, whereas The Godfather boasts a baroque visual (and musical) schema that helps amplify its sense of epic grandeur, A Most Violent Year uses a similar style in a far more understated manner, allowing the larger implications about Abel’s story—with regards to what it says about American ambition, and capitalist enterprise—to lurk beneath the surface, more muted and suggested than imposingly underlined.
Where A Most Violent Year’s ties to The Godfather are truly complicated, however, is in a finale that [SPOILER ALERT] finds Abel triumphing by hewing to his principles. In doing so, he seems to fully emerge as Michael Corleone’s reverse image, except that an unexpected encounter with Julian (Elyes Gabel), an employee bitter at Abel for what he views as a lack of support during a time of crisis, also leaves Abel with blood (literally and figuratively) on his hands. In that closing moment, Chandor celebrates Abel for his convictions (which mark him as the anti-Michael Corleone) while nonetheless recognizing that, in such a cutthroat capitalist environment, no one wins without also being somewhat sullied by filth and corruption. Consequently, by coming to an analogous, despondent conclusion about the price of American (big business/family) success, albeit from a polar-opposite direction, A Most Violent Year resonates as the rare film to not simply take its superficial cues from The Godfather, but to truly understand its underlying ideas—and, more impressive still, to re-work them into something thrillingly unique.