Joaquin Phoenix’s recent string of idiotic public appearances put James Gray’s beautiful Two Lovers secondary to his selfish antics. Even worse, Phoenix is brilliant as the film’s lead character Leonard, a broken man who internalizes every disappointment, every heartache, storing trauma like a boat taking on water.
In the stirring opening sequence, Leonard strolls along a pier at dusk, then jumps into the bay, sinking slowly until he hits bottom. Gray then intercuts a flashback of a woman who we later learn is Leonard’s ex-fiance, who’s left him due to urging of her parents because of a medical inconsistency. This recollection causes Leonard to change his mind, emerging from the water freezing and alone. The mere thought of his ex-love forces an electric impulse toward life, and this introduction shows a clash between self-hatred and hope that becomes a key theme throughout the film.
Leonard lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) while he recovers from a previous botched suicide post-breakup, so the family is understandably on edge. This situation influences Leonard’s relationships with two very different women – a sexy neighbor named Michelle (Gwyenth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful daughter of a family friend, and how both shape his life in vastly different ways. Sandra provides a lasting, safe fix, while Michelle proves to be the prized possession just out of reach.
Gray’s melodrama becomes an organic and rhythmic offshoot of Leonard’s conflicts, his fears, his desperation, and Phoenix instills a charming vulnerability in a man constantly doubting his place in the world. As with Gray’s other films, Two Lovers concerns itself with family – how they are created, destroyed, how we interact with those closest to us, and how we push them away in times of distress.
But unlike The Yards and We Own The Night, Two Lovers constructs a sublime relationship between character and mood, as Gray’s camera floats along with Leonard understanding every nuanced decision as he gracefully succumbs to the pressures of everyday life. Leonard’s great talent is his ability to fool the people closest to him into momentarily thinking he’s okay, and the final scene of Two Lovers captures the tragic moment when Leonard finally buys into the lie.