One thing most people say about this movie is how much Oscar (Inside Llewyn Davis) Isaac reminds them of a younger Al Pacino. In a good way, they hasten to add. But as an observation, it doesn’t go anywhere near penetrating the sheer imitation madness going on here. Isaac, who plays Abel Morales, owner of a beleaguered 1980s New York heating oil company, also trance channels Armand (The Mambo Kings) Assante in his camel coat and soulful coiffure. Jessica Chastain seems to be doing a Madeleine Stowe in The Two Jakes take, and the movie feels as if it were shot in the New York noir twilight perfected by late, great cinematographer Gordon Willis, of The Godfather and Manhattan fame. The polite word for this is pastiche.
It would be wrong to call this film overly derivative. Most crime melodramas use revenge as the driving motivation. This film tells the story of a man passionately devoted to making his business run as clean as possible in a lawlessness era. We see 1980s New York from the perspective of drivers who are being highjacked and beaten while their handsome, brooding boss refuses to let them take guns out on the trucks. But we see Abel (get the ref?) wrestling with the wastefulness of violence. It’s High Noon in New York.
Director J.C. Chandor’s third feature film reminds me most of the Coen brothers’ brilliant redigestion of The Glass Key in their great masterpiece Miller’s Crossing, complete with lyrical urban views in the snow. Yet Chandor’s vision of the darkened world is decidedly more optimistic. It’s a fallen world, but Abel stands convinced that people can choose the least corrupt path and succeed; you “always try to do the most right thing.” In The Godfather, Michael Corleone invokes the now-familiar mantra “it’s business, not personal” before bumping someone off. Chandor makes the world of personal business seem possibly moral, and that’s a new kind of shot in the arm.