A Most Violent Year is that most rare of things; a gangster flick that rejects crime, and flinches at the sight of blood. But just like Al Pacino’s Michael Coreleone in The Godfather, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a man who seems to embrace family above all else. What is it about family ties that sets these men on such self-reflexive, and ultimately destructive, personal journeys? Although there are huge differences at the outset – Michael gives into gangsterism, while Abel does not – it’s this link of family, and what it means to each man, that makes it clear they are not so different after all. Or are they?

At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone turns up – late – to his sister’s wedding. He is dressed proudly in a military uniform, signifying to everyone around him that this is the life that he has chosen for himself, not bound to the criminal nature of his father’s business. He wants to do his own thing, and make his own mark without any ties to his genealogical past. But that all changes when an attempt on his father’s life – Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando – wakes something primordial in him. The scene in which Michael sits in his father’s chair, composed in the middle of the frame, while his siblings and assorted in-laws fight over what should be done about the assassination attempt, is the crucial point of the entire movie – and the camera knows it, swinging gradually closer to his face which, in Coppola’s exquisitely balanced light, casts his figure in the shape of his half-dead father’s. He announces that he will be the one to sort things out, to avenge his dad. It’s In these moments that Michael realises that it was family all along that drove his father’s business, not the other way round; and with his father’s life threatened, he knows now what family means.

With Abel, however, things are a little different. From the start, he knows his family is the thing he cares most about – he wants to build a legacy for his children, and do well by his ever-patient wife Anna, played by Jessica Chastain. But Abel’s commitment to his family feels different to Michael’s; the children are barely present in the film, acting more as shadowy signifiers for the character’s motives. And that’s entirely the point; at any given moment, Abel will entertain others with talk of principles, trust, dignity, and legacy. He may mention his his kids a handful of times, but he is rarely that interested in them, and the film itself mirrors this with always placing them in the background, with a line here or there. When a frightened, near-histrionic Anna crashes into her husband’s office, brandishing a gun that she found the children playing with, Abel’s face barely flinches in reaction. Does he not care that his kids were toying with a loaded gun? Or does he instantly see the bigger picture, one where they are only a small part?

Michael and Abel are both faced with situations in which the life of a loved one is threatened by an outside force. Michael, although reluctantly, quickly resolves what he must do, and acts upon it; Abel doesn’t act, at least not directly and definitely not quickly. Does it mean that Abel doesn’t care? Perhaps not, although it may mean that he is in love with the idea of leaving a legacy for his family more than the family themselves. Both men serve these family ties, but only Michael feels bound by them; perhaps Abel, in his cold-blooded rejection of gangsterism, has become a cold-blooded gangster nonetheless.

A Most Violent Year is out on January 23rd.