Two Lovers (Gray, 2009)

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.

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A Few Notes on We Own the Night

My original (and unenthusiastic) review for We Own the Night can be found here. But seeing James Gray’s cop thriller again, I feel it’s better than originally thought and worth discussing a bit more. During my initial theatrical viewing, the film came across as dynamically stylish and light on character, extremely watchable and engaging but disappointing in the end due to its reliance on silly plot devices. The second time around, Gray’s construction of tragedy really hit home for me. The rapport between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg’s conflicted brothers caught on separate sides of the law became more authentic and palpable beyond genre convention. Their respective dramatic compromises, both played out significantly in the final scene, resonate greatly with Gray’s motif of familial sacrifice. While I still reserve the right to roll my eyes during a number of outlandishly implausible scenes in We Own the Night, it’s a work filled with interesting moments of tension dependent on performance and genre. 

 

We Own the Night (Gray, 2007)

The new crime drama from director James Gray suffers greatly under the pressure of familiar cop film cliches, yet it has a brilliant sense of space and sound which I cannot shake. Everything from Robert Duvall’s old police chief to the sibling rivalry of good cop brother Mark Wahlberg and druggie Joaquin Phoenix reeks of better made films, especially those by Sidney Lumet. But Gray’s great asset is his ability to craft visual complexities with complimentary audio motifs, reflecting a sense of character not found in the acting or the writing. Like Little Odessa and The Yards before it, We Own the Night starts loudly (killings, train yards, the disco club) and shifts into a brutally restrained and quiet vision of a dark and constricting underworld often unseen but heard and felt. This incredible aesthetic achievement comes to an apex in Gray’s brilliant action centerpiece, a rain drenched car chase shot from an inside POV with restricted sound and camera movement. We see what Phoenix sees, and the scene is movie violence at it’s most horrific, from a distance. The rest of the film, especially the anti-climatic guilt ridden ending, doesn’t come close to these startlingly creative and intense moments.

Little Odessa (Gray, 1994)

A downright depressing tale of a Russian/American family’s destruction, lead to the slaughter by Tim Roth’s prodigal son/hitman returning home. Director James Gray (The Yards) gets two fine lead performances from Roth and Edward Furlong playing his kid brother torn between a life of crime and family. The sometimes horrendous production value (the boom mike can be seen in multiple shots) hinders the overall impact, but by and large a solid debut effort by a key independent filmmaker who continues to obsess over family corruption and in turn the devastating consequences (see the upcoming We Own the Night).