The Ties That Bind: The Films of James Gray
The following piece and programme notes—no longer archived on TIFF’s website—accompanied a retrospective I curated for TIFF Cinematheque that took place in January 2019 and featured each of James Gray’s films up to that point with the filmmaker present for a masterclass, a Q&A following The Yards, and a Carte Blanche presentation of William A. Wellman’s Other Men’s Women.
As James Gray enters a whole new phase of his career and his cinema with the Brad Pitt-starring science-fiction epic Ad Astra, we are thrilled to present this TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of an American filmmaker whose fidelity to cinematic tradition has often placed him at odds to the movies of the moment.
When James Gray made Little Odessa in 1993, he seemed perfectly poised for success. Fresh out of NYU, the untried 23-year-old filmmaker had managed to secure such talents as Pulp Fiction’s Tim Roth, Edward Furlong (then “hot” from Terminator 2), and Academy Award winners Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell for his feature debut; his film had a hitman at its centre, the ’90s protagonist du jour thanks to John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s jive-talking killers in Tarantino’s zeitgeist-defining hit; and, as with Pulp Fiction’s Palme d’Or win at Cannes, Gray took home a prestigious prize of his own, the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. With his obvious reverence for the “New Hollywood” directors of the 1970s (Scorsese, Friedkin, and above all Coppola), his affinity for genre (specifically the crime drama), and his visual flair, Gray appeared to be at the forefront of a new generation of emerging young American filmmakers who were bringing “indie cinema” into the mainstream.
Right from the beginning, however, Gray also demonstrated that his sensibilities were markedly at odds with those of his contemporaries. While Tarantino helped usher in a hip, self-aware, and self-reflexive cinema of irony, Gray was straight up: he took violence seriously, treated classical storytelling principles as if they were holy writ, and was openly emotional and sincere. Despite their crime-movie frameworks, Little Odessa and the films that finally followed it — Gray’s second feature, The Yards, was not released until five years after his debut, his third, We Own the Night, another seven years after that — are not bound to genre: they are tragedies, in the classical sense. Gray’s protagonists may happen to be crooks and cops, but more importantly they are pawns of fate, condemned to destinies they didn’t choose or don’t want by forces beyond their control: environment, class, and, above all, the bonds of family, which pull at the characters like puppet strings, determining the trajectory of their lives even if they seek to reject them entirely.
This kind of deeply, unabashedly serious filmmaking has only become more unfashionable in the decades since Gray’s debut, and it has often relegated the filmmaker to a kind of limbo space. Not arty enough to be arthouse, not crowd-pleasing enough to run with the more commercially viable work of Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, Gray’s films have often seemed to be out of step with the cinematic times. While his films are as visually distinctive as those of any director working today (Gray has retained a singular look even while working with a variety of cinematographers, including such superstar DPs as the late Harris Savides and Darius Khondji), and feature career-best performances by such major stars as Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, and most notably Joaquin Phoenix, in North America they have been dismissed and condescended to in a way that the films of his contemporaries never have.
The past decade, however, has seen a rising tide of critical celebration that has started to lift Gray to new and deserved heights of recognition. Bless the French, who were there right from the beginning: Claude Chabrol became Gray’s first major supporter after encountering Little Odessa at Venice, and the director’s films regularly received prestigious premiere slots at Cannes even as they went largely unnoticed in their limited North American releases. As Gray’s work began to depart from genre and expand in scope and ambition, this Gallic enthusiasm began to cross the Atlantic, with North American critics offering (sometimes grudging) praise of the contemporary romantic drama Two Lovers and two very different historical works: the small-scale character piece The Immigrant, and the adventure epic The Lost City of Z.
While Gray has often seemed to be working in a mode of the past, his concerns are timeless. Driven by fundamental questions about love, morality, responsibility, and fate versus choice, yet grounding these grand themes in meticulously observed details and the emotional realities of his characters, his films transcend the fashions of the moment in their search for essential human truths. In today’s American film landscape, Gray stands apart.
dir. James Gray | USA 1995 | 98 min. | R 35mm
Winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival (where it also received the vocal admiration of nouvelle vague legend Claude Chabrol), James Gray’s remarkably assured feature debut sees the director’s style and sensibility arriving fully formed: deeply personal, deathly serious, and exquisitely rendered. Set in the eponymous Russian-Jewish enclave in Brighton Beach, Little Odessa focuses on the fateful homecoming of Joshua Shapiro (Tim Roth), a mob hitman who returns to his old stomping grounds to take out his latest target. While intending to lay low, Joshua finds himself inexorably drawn back to the family he left behind: his father (Maximilian Schell), who has disowned him; his gentle, terminally ill mother (Vanessa Redgrave); and his worshipful teenage brother (Edward Furlong). Inevitably, personal and professional spheres collide, placing Joshua and those he loves in grave danger. Inaugurating Gray’s career-long preoccupations with family and fate, Little Odessa serves as a premature rebuttal to the post-Tarantino irony that was then just beginning to put its stranglehold on American filmmaking. “[Roth’s] finest performance to date … James Gray, aged 25, directs this dark, spare piece — his first feature — as to the manor born” (Time Out).
dir. James Gray | USA 2000 | 115 min. | 14A 35mm
A troubled production that faced much meddling from then-Miramax head honcho He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named — who insisted that the director shoot a new ending after production had wrapped, and then effectively dumped the picture with a paltry release — The Yards nonetheless remains Gray’s finest and most moving work. Released on parole, Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) returns to his devoted mother (Ellen Burstyn) in Queens, determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow. His best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who is engaged to Leo’s beloved cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), swings Leo a job with his employer, Erica’s stepfather Frank (James Caan), owner of a subway-car repair firm. Embroiled by Willie in a spot of industrial sabotage against Frank’s competitors, Leo finds himself implicated in a murder and forced to go on the run, sparking the slow implosion of his extended family as overlapping loyalties become irreconcilable. Featuring darkly gorgeous cinematography by the late Harris Savides and a stunning score by Howard Shore (with an assist from Gustav Holst’s The Planets), The Yards is an operatic tragedy of great moral and emotional complexity.
We Own the Night
dir. James Gray | USA 2007 | 117 min. | 18A Digital
Seven years after the Miramax-managed box-office failure of The Yards, Gray returned with this riveting cop drama set in the violence-plagued New York of the late 1980s. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Bobby Green, a nightclub manager whose decadent lifestyle and mob affiliations have earned him the disapproval of his father Burt (Robert Duvall) and brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), high-ranking NYPD officers who try to enlist Bobby’s help to take down a Russian drug lord with ties to his club. When Burt and Joseph are targeted by the mob, a repentant Bobby volunteers to go undercover, sparking a clash between blood loyalty and individual freedom that could cost him everything he holds most dear, including his loving girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). Featuring a number of standout setpieces — including Bobby’s nightmarish descent into a drug lab and a rain-drenched vehicular pursuit that ranks as one of the most spectacularly staged car chases ever put to film — We Own the Night is a deceptively understated, richly complex crime drama of unusual sensitivity and artfulness.
dir. James Gray | USA 2008 | 110 min. | 14A 35mm
Loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” (which had previously been filmed by Gray’s idol Luchino Visconti), the filmmaker’s first wholesale departure from the crime genre is a darkly comic examination of how the heart can distort our perceptions of our objects of desire. Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a bipolar aspiring photographer who has moved back in with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after his engagement falls apart. He becomes infatuated with a gorgeous neighbour, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who he gazes upon from across the way à la Rear Window and eventually befriends; meanwhile, he is also confronted with the hesitant courtship of the shy but kindly Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who his parents eagerly seek to set him up with. Caught between fantasy and reality, Leonard entertains the advances of Sandra even as he obsessively pursues Michelle, willfully blinding himself to her own deep-seated problems. “The typical romantic drama calls upon us to believe in love … Two Lovers is singular in its ambition to critique the very premise of that emotion while still embedding us deep within its power” (Andrew Chan, Reverse Shot).
dir. James Gray | USA 2013 | 117 min. | 14A Digital
Set in 1921 New York, The Immigrant is not only a sort of prelude to Gray’s tales of familial and ethnic ties in contemporary NYC, but also another of the director’s studies in twisted love and dark romance. After a long sea journey from Poland, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island in search of a better life — a hope that is quickly dashed when her seriously ill sister is quarantined and Ewa falls into the clutches of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an opportunistic charlatan who runs a burlesque show and sidelines as a pimp. Selling herself at Bruno’s sleazy theatre as she strives to make enough money to buy her sister’s freedom, Ewa becomes enchanted by a kindly magician (Jeremy Renner) whose amorous attentions arouse the ire of Bruno, who himself loves her in his own sickly, controlling way. Loosely patterned on Fellini’s La Strada, beautifully shot by Darius Khondji (his first collaboration with the director) and performed with heartbreaking emotional directness and silent-film pathos by its magnificent cast, The Immigrant is a singular film about sacrifice, self-worth, and redemption.
The Lost City of Z
dir. James Gray | USA 2016 | 141 min. | 14A 35mm
Based on the non-fiction novel by David Grann, Gray’s first adaptation is unquestionably the director’s greatest and most ambitious departure from his previous work, even as it is powerfully personal in its story about the impossible balance between individual ambition and familial devotion. Denied promotion due to his class background, British officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) accepts a commission from the Royal Geographical Society to chart a river in the Amazon jungle. Completing his mission with the aid of old Amazonian hand Henry Costin (a virtually unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), Fawcett becomes convinced of the existence of a fabled lost city, which he dubs “Z” and envisions as a classless utopia that defies the destructive materialism of the modern world. Reluctantly encouraged by his devoted wife Nina (Sienna Miller), Fawcett mounts a number of arduous expeditions to search for Z over the course of two decades, his obsession ultimately drawing in his teenage son Jack (Tom Holland). Despite unavoidable echoes of Herzog’s Aguirre and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, The Lost City of Z is a completely different take on the going-up-the-river movie, one located somewhere between David Lean and John Ford.