Every serious director has his or her distinct storytelling panache: Quentin Tarantino and his jukebox of unapologetic homages, Christopher Nolan and his massive scales, Terrence Malick and his plotless streams-of-consciousness, etc. James Gray is far less flamboyant, perhaps because he’s also enjoyed half the success and fame so many of the better-known directors have had, but that’s a big reason why we’ve been so in love with his work for all these years. With every film, even the ones that are a little rougher around the edges, there is a profound sense of care and love for the visual-storytelling process. With methodical transitions of time and an unrepentantly classical approach to the craft (just about every Gray film feels like it’s been plucked out of an obscure 1950s theater house), Gray’s worlds are populated by dreamers and his tales of lost souls struggling to find purpose, to find happiness and some form of absolution, are deeply felt pieces of work.
Over the course of his career, there is no sliver of doubt that Gray has evolved into one of the most distinct American voices of modern cinema, spinning intimate stories, but never opting to razzle-dazzle with typical movie tropes of sex and violence, and never breaking the heart of the tale he’s telling. With the release of “The Lost City of Z” this week, we look back at the beautifully earnest body of work that is James Gray’s filmography.
“Little Odessa” (1994)
The year is 1994 and all the pre-Film Twitter chat should be about “Little Odessa,” a simmering and startlingly mature debut by a then 24-year-old filmmaker named James Gray. The movie is minimalist, classical and brooding, but as a moody and stark crime thriller, it finds itself out of step with a culture that has fallen head over heels with the fast-talking world of Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” (instead, it’s deeply misunderstood by American critics and taken down by the Roger Eberts of the world). Released properly the next year by Fine Line — it must be nice having your debut feature premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and win a Silver Bear award while you’re there — “Little Odessa” doesn’t really stand a chance in the post-Tarantino climate, but those in the know understand the painterly picture is the terrific opening salvo in what will be an impressive and earnest career swimming against the tides of irony and all current popular trends. Starring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave, “Little Odessa,” named for its Brighton Beach, Russian Jewish milieu, kicked off what would be Gray’s everlasting modus operandi: using genre as a Trojan horse to explore ideas of family, class and the idea of where one belongs, if anywhere at all. It also kicked off a string Brooklyn-based crime thrillers centered on patriarchs and their kin. Gray’s next two films are thematically similar, but neither “The Yards” nor “We Own The Night” are as raw and open-wounded as “Little Odessa” is. In the somber, quietly angry melodrama, Roth plays a hitman long separated from his family who returns to Brighton Beach to fulfill a contract killing for the Russian Mafia. Banned by his disapproving father (a menacing Schell), Joshua, the killer, can’t help but make contact with his younger brother (Furlong) while longing to reconnect with his dying mother (Redgrave). Uncannily precocious, and incredibly self-assured in its commitment to itself — deliberate, performance-centered, unshowy — it’s a still remarkable to process the idea of a 24-year-old young man with this much command of classical cinematic grammar and restraint (and what kid this age appreciates opera??). Psychologically dark, but patient and deeply emotional, if the ‘Odessa’ narrative ever feels superficially familiar — the assassin pulled in one more time — Gray actually subverts that idea. “Little Odessa” is not about a killer attempting one last job before going legit, but about a stone-cold killer left in exile returning home in hopes of making amends with a family that can never take him back. In its final heartbreaking moments, when Joshua’s presence has further destroyed his family beyond repair, what unfolds is a horrible tragedy of Shakespearean proportions about fathers and sons and intimate temptations that shatter every good intention. [B+]
“The Yards” (2000)
We suspect that many might come to James Gray’s second feature, the red-headed stepchild that is “The Yards,” the same way we did: after the fact, by some distance and mainly in a bid for completism, an effort to go back and mop up his more minor works having been hooked in by one of his later pictures. We hope they all experience the same pleasant surprise, then, of discovering just how good, and how unfairly dismissed, his sophomore feature is. A tightly coiled thriller-ish drama set against the unequivocally blue-collar backdrop of the Queens rail yards and the men who work them, it deals in many of Gray’s recurring themes: loyalty, family, the simple tragedy of never being able to escape your fate no matter how decent your intentions. And it was the first time Gray worked with Joaquin Phoenix, who would go on to star in his three subsequent features, too, culminating in a brilliantly nuanced turn in “The Immigrant.” You can certainly see the seeds of Phoenix’s particular brand of ambivalent, unpredictable twitchiness here, but his is not the only strong performance, with the often-underrated Mark Wahlberg putting in one of his strongest turns in a role that plays perfectly to his straightforward, everyman appeal while still giving him an interior life and an individual moral perspective. Indeed, he and Phoenix are well-matched, delivering possibly a more balanced film, performance-wise, than in Gray’s next one, the better-received “We Own The Night.” But the two are only the center of a larger impressive ensemble, from Ellen Burstyn, James Caan and Faye Dunaway as representatives of the older generation, to Charlize Theron playing a character much more real and less bombshell-like than we’d seen from her before then. Mostly, though, it’s the lived-in specificity of the setting that gives “The Yards” such texture, because while the plot, with its echoes of classical theatrical tragedy, may not necessarily shock with newness, the confidence and authenticity of Gray’s examination of this very specific milieu make it feel like a fresh take. Its release bungled by Miramax, who held on to the film for nearly two years after it was finished, “The Yards” was bizarrely badly received, both critically and commercially, making it the one genuine all-out flop of Gray’s career. And yet, without simply being contrarian, it has recently taken its place as one of our very favorite of his films. And as an introduction to the broader canvasses of class and family and personal morality — a frame within which all Gray’s films to date operate — it’s the perfect primer: a tough-minded, unsentimental story of disenfranchised young men deciding to steal their vision of the American Dream. The tragedy being, of course, that trying to cheat or steal that dream is exactly what kills it. [A-]