Where to begin with James Gray

With his New York family drama Armageddon Time currently on release, we backtrack through the finely crafted, character-driven cinema of James Gray.

21 November 2022

By Brogan Morris

Ad Astra (2019)

Why this might not seem so easy

A contemporary of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, James Gray didn’t experience quite the same immediate success. Gray was making short films at 12, got his first movie job at a studio in his native Queens aged 16 and directed his debut feature, 1994’s Little Odessa, at 24. He was slow to follow up, however, making only three more films in the 14 years following his debut. It wasn’t until some two decades into his career, meanwhile, that Gray’s unhurried style of filmmaking – though immediately appreciated in Europe, particularly by French critics – would begin to find broad critical favour.

Armageddon Time (2022)

From the beginning, despite an ever-changing American cinema, Gray has been adamantly making films in the fashion of the New Hollywood movies he grew up on. Recalling the street-level New York dramas of Sidney Lumet and the 70s masterworks of Francis Ford Coppola, Gray’s pictures are of the serious-minded and character-driven sort that briefly flourished in Hollywood in the 1970s. Up to and including his latest release, Armageddon Time, an autobiographical family drama set in Queens at the dawn of the Reagan era and starring Anthony Hopkins, Gray films are not the kind to offer easy gratification. They ask to be savoured.

The best place to start – The Immigrant

The Immigrant was given only a token theatrical release back in 2014, after Gray refused to action editorial changes ordered by distributor Harvey Weinstein. Gray having stood his creative ground, his fifth film now looks like a defining work. Following Polish refugee Ewa (Marion Cotillard) through Ellis Island into the New York underworld of 1921, The Immigrant is the finest of its director’s many tales of crime and familial discord in New York’s immigrant community.

The Immigrant (2013)

Always game to wrestle with a spiky central character, with The Immigrant Gray pulls off the trick of finding sympathy for his most irredeemable creation, parasitic pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix, a Gray regular), while remaining totally invested in Cotillard’s desperate Ewa as she’s pulled into Bruno’s noxious vortex.

Inspired by his grandparents’ arrival in New York from revolutionary Russia, Gray – who always favours rich, shadowy imagery redolent of New Hollywood cinematographer Gordon Willis – borrows The Godfather Part II’s ochre glow for his Prohibition-era Gotham, giving The Immigrant the look of a memory preserved in amber.

What to watch next

Adapted from David Grann’s non-fiction book on the travels of upper-crust English soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, who tirelessly sought evidence of an ancient civilisation in Amazonia in the early 20th century, The Lost City of Z (2016) is something of an outlier for Gray. The only one of his films not based on an original story of his own, The Lost City of Z is nonetheless a deeply felt account of one man’s obsessive, unquenchable desire for glory. 

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Ostensibly an adventure picture, one painted in fabulous jade and gold by director of photography Darius Khondji, The Lost City of Z grows more haunted as it becomes increasingly clear that what Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) seeks in the jungle is ultimately unattainable. Though his exploits take him from Ireland to South America via the trenches of the First World War, Fawcett is – like all Gray’s protagonists – trapped, with no hope of escape from the suffocating culture he was born into or the family baggage he inherited.

Even more sweeping and ambitious than The Lost City of Z is Ad Astra (2019), a galactic odyssey in which Gray reimagines Apocalypse Now (1979) for the second space age. Starring Brad Pitt as a crack astronaut tasked with finding his long-lost scientist father (Tommy Lee Jones) behind Neptune, the film is the closest Gray has come to making something like a blockbuster. Gray has lamented that studio-mandated changes left Ad Astra compromised beyond his original vision, but the released version bears the Gray hallmarks – deliberate pacing, mythic storytelling, a pained father-son relationship – while succeeding on its own merits. An at-times almost overwhelmingly lonely study in toxic masculinity, Ad Astra also offers a strikingly credible vision of a solar system in the early stages of colonisation, an eerie highway of derelict space stations and corporate branding.

Two Lovers (2008)

All Gray’s films have a taste for melodrama, but 2008’s Two Lovers – itself inspired by a Dostoevsky short story – finds the director telling a tale of doomed romance in a quieter-than-usual register. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a suicidal young man overcoming heartbreak with kind-hearted madonna Vinessa Shaw, while helplessly gravitating towards a mercurial neighbour played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Even without the violence and family-related trauma of his other pictures, Two Lovers may still be Gray’s toughest film, one so intimate and honest about love and depression as to feel almost abrasive.

We Own the Night (2007)

Gray’s first three movies – Little Odessa, 2000’s The Yards and 2007’s We Own the Night – form an unofficial New York crime trilogy of sorts, each one centred on a different family at war with itself in a community rife with corruption. Starring Tim Roth as a Russian-American mobster coming home to Brighton Beach to carry out a hit, Little Odessa is solemn to the point of feeling occasionally oppressive, but it’s a remarkably assured debut from a director then in his mid-20s, with Gray’s visual style and keen sense for a subtle performance already apparent.

The strongest of Gray’s early trio of films is We Own the Night. Set in Brooklyn in the late 80s, a time when crime in New York was at its worst, the film stars Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix as brothers on opposite sides of the law, Wahlberg following in the footsteps of cop father Robert Duvall and bad seed Phoenix in bed with the Russian mafia. Typically well-acted, We Own the Night also proves Gray adept at muscular action, the film’s unrelenting car chase through the pouring rain among the director’s most spectacular sequences.

Where not to start

Before he successfully resisted the disgraced former studio head on The Immigrant, Gray lost another of his movies to Harvey Weinstein. The Yards was a passion project for the director, inspired by his father’s involvement in a New York bribery scandal and starring New Hollywood favourites of Gray’s, including James Caan and Ellen Burstyn. Following disappointing test screenings of the film, however, Weinstein demanded cuts and reshoots, with a less ambiguous ending for Mark Wahlberg’s hangdog ex-con among the shoehorned new scenes. The result is the least of Gray’s films, something that feels truncated and anonymous where the director’s best work is uniformly patient and personal.

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