J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year so strongly recalls The Godfather that you wonder as you're watching it how the director will manage to fashion the movie into something entirely his own. But in a careful, small-scale way, he does. As in the Coppola mob classic, the characters are often cloaked in shadow, lit from above or behind, in the manner of the late Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis. The picture has a quiet intimacy that consistently evokes the famous Corleone saga; and in the lead role, Oscar Isaac, as an urban idealist chasing the American dream in a world of depraved criminality, suggests the coiled intensity of Al Pacino's Michael Corleone without simply channeling it. (This is a true breakout performance, well beyond the one Isaac gave in last year's over-hyped Inside Llewyn Davis.)
The story is set in New York City in 1981—the bad old days of crime and corruption and general municipal sleaze. Abel Morales (Isaac) is the ambitious young owner of a home-heating-oil company whose success has drawn the resentment of his entrenched competitors. Somebody has been jacking Abel's fuel trucks; it's costing him a fortune, and he's sure his unscrupulous rivals are responsible. But Abel prides himself on being a man with a strong moral code, and he refuses to get down in the gutter to strike back against the men who are robbing him.