By: Judd Livingston
I remember the first time I saw Serpico. I was 15 and I’d rented it from our local, family run, video store. I wish I could say I had some special mentor-like relationship with the owner, Morris, but it was actually far more removed than that. He wasn’t trying to impart any special knowledge on me, or introduce me to hidden cinematic majesties I might not find on my own; he was simply a video store owner who knew his stuff. He really knew his stuff. His suggestions always hit the mark. He’d recommend obscure British indie films, American classics, French New Wave or an awesome, overlooked action movie from the 80s, and you would rent it unquestioningly. He would also replace your watch battery.
He was unemotional about his recommendations. No over-the-top adulation or hyperbole. Just a simple “This one’s good,” or “You’ll like this.” He was just a guy who did his job and did it well.
I had heard of Serpico, and when I asked Morris if he had it and if it was any good, he replied with his standard brand of bland positivity. I took it home to watch on the basement TV. The basement TV had started as a crummy old black and white for the kids to play Nintendo on so as to not tie up the good, cable-connected, full colour, 27″ upstairs. Eventually though, as we kids got older, we put together some money and got a used 27″ for ourselves. Then I spliced the cable and connected a VCR. And finally, I connected that VCR to the old stereo, so we had some booming bass for our flicks. I loved watching movies down there. The basement had very little natural light, so it was nice and dark. You could really submerge yourself in a film when you watched it down there. I remember after getting my wisdom teeth out, laying on the couch and watching the first tape of The Godfather II over and over again. (I was too doped up to change the tape.)
So there I was, cozily enveloped in the basement, as I got to experience Serpico for the first time. I loved its pacing. I loved that Al Pacino hadn’t yet become the abrasive, yelling actor of his later years. He was still like Michael from the The Godfather; still young and relatively fresh. He could still find the character and become him, rather than the other way around. I liked the soundtrack, the jazz that played in the background. But most of all, I just loved the atmosphere that Serpico created.
The new film A Most Violent Year is not Serpico, although some critics have been comparing the two. The only connection I can see is Oscar Isaac, and that’s mainly because he looks a lot like a young Pacino. But unlike Pacino, at least unlike him post-Godfather II, Isaac seems to have some real range. His efforts keep the film together.
I’ll be the first to admit I was surprised by Oscar Isaac. I saw him in Inside Llewyn Davis, but I haven’t seen him in any of the dozen or so movies he did before that. I thought he was okay in Davis, but I also thought that he might just be playing himself. He came off as a hipster douche (hipster in modern-day terms, not back in the 60s). I assumed, since it was a Coen Brothers flick, that they were carrying the day behind the scenes. After watching AMVY though, it turns out Isaac was just acting the hell outta the part.
Here he plays Abel Morales, owner/operator of Standard Heating Oil in 1981 New York. His company is growing, and on the verge of becoming something even bigger. But, he’s also under fire from his competitors and the city’s DA, played by David Oyelowo (of Selma fame), who’s looking to clean up the industry which he believes is rife with corruption. Jessica Chastain plays Abel’s mobbed-up wife, who’s also the financial brains behind the company which once belonged to her father. Albert Brooks has a small supporting role, and Jerry Adler (Hesh from The Sopranos) makes an appearance.
Director J.C. Chandor (who also wrote the film) succeeds in setting a tone, that’s for sure. Within the first five minutes of the film, with help from its sumptuous visuals, you are drawn in. But he doesn’t capitalize on the world he’s conjured; he doesn’t bring-it-all-home, if you will. The story is captivating in its tension, the pacing is slow but steady and never plodding. The acting from Isaac is superb, but Chastain doesn’t leave as much of a mark. I think part of that is the fact that her character isn’t as flushed out in the film. Had AMVY been a bit longer, they may have been able to give her a bit more time and let us get to know the character’s back-story a bit more.
A Most Violent Year is engaging and I would definitely say spend your hard-earned bucks on seeing it in the theatres. That said, I don’t think you’ll get much out of multiple viewings like, say, Goodfellas. As the lights came up on Abel’s story, what I was really thinking was, “This would make a great HBO show!” I was very intrigued to see where else these characters might grow. I do think that 20 years from now, if video stores still exist, a good proprietor might suggest it to a 15 year old kid looking for an evening of entertainment.
 For example, Dogs of War with Christopher Walken. Fucking. Awesome. When I was 12. Haven’t seen it recently, but I’m sure it holds up. [Ed. Note: Sure.]