By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
If there are, as Steven Soderbergh is fond of saying, three types of filmmakers — those who don’t know what they’re doing, those who know what they’re doing and you like what they’re doing, and those who know what they’re doing but you don’t like what they’re doing — then until recently, I would have placed James Gray squarely in the third category. Speaking to The New York Times’ Dennis Lim in 2007 as his third feature film, We Own the Night, was about to be released in U.S. theaters, Gray acknowledged the curious fact that his movies had thus far generated considerably greater enthusiasm from French critics and audiences than their American counterparts. “Apparently I’m the dramatic version of Jerry Lewis,” Gray told Lim. “Someone wrote that I’m the object of Gallic fetish.” As it happens, that someone was me.
Gray certainly knows what he’s doing. That was obvious from the stark opening minutes of his 1994 debut feature, Little Odessa, which starred Tim Roth as a professional killer who agrees to a hit in his old neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and insinuates himself back into his estranged Russian-Jewish family, with ultimately tragic consequences.
In marked contrast to the era’s countless gory, self-consciously hip crime stories spawned by the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gray’s film was in tune with a decidedly more classical set of influences. (Lim went so far as to dub Gray the “anti-Tarantino.”) Shot in long, somber wide-screen takes, with Russian choral music on the soundtrack and the chill of a bleak New York winter in the air, Little Odessa seemed less like a gangster movie than a family tragedy by way of Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky (whom it directly referenced), in which some of the characters merely happened to be hoods. That Gray, then a newly minted graduate of the USC film school, showed considerable command of the medium was undeniable, although so was his habit of exploiting the angst and suffering of his characters at the expense of any other emotions — a tendency that became increasingly problematic over the course of his next two films.
Family and lawlessness were also the dominant concerns of Gray’s second feature, The Yards (2000), in which a recently paroled felon (Mark Wahlberg) is stunted in his efforts to go straight by a childhood friend (Joaquin Phoenix) who helps Wahlberg’s subway-contractor uncle to sabotage the competition. Once again, the film was handsomely crafted and powerfully acted, the mood unrelievedly bleak — so much so that the movie’s producer and distributor, Harvey Weinstein, forced Gray to shoot a positivist epilogue for the film’s theatrical release (subsequently excised for the DVD version). For We Own the Night, Gray reunited his Yards stars for the story of two brothers in conflict — one (Wahlberg) the dutiful good son in a family of cops, the other (Phoenix) the flamboyant manager of a night club frequented by Russian drug runners. It is a morose morality play seemingly cobbled together out of odds and ends of Gray’s previous films (to say nothing of countless superior New York police stories), which I found the least impressive of Gray’s work when it premiered in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. But by that point, Gray had already become nearly as loaded a subject in Franco-American cultural relations as California wines and “freedom fries.”
In 2006, when We Own the Night was still in the editing room, a writer for the French cultural magazine Télérama traveled to L.A. for the express purpose of interviewing Gray about his forthcoming feature, and upon my arrival in Cannes the following May, the buzz around the film had reached a veritable fever pitch. When We Own the Night finally screened, it earned (as The Yards had before it) some of the most glowing French reviews of the festival. Even Little Odessa, the only Gray film to premiere at Venice instead of Cannes, had been warmly embraced in France, earning one especially valuable partisan in the form of legendary French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who deemed it “the American film that most struck me in the past few years.”
Meanwhile, U.S. cultural tastemakers greeted Night with a now-familiar mix of polite dismissals and hostile sarcasm. “There is certainly nothing fancy or gimmicky about this movie. But there is nothing especially interesting or new, either,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, while Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow quipped, “The plotting is so rickety that the action hinges on suspicions roused by a character carrying a cigarette lighter and matches. Is that more rare or suspect than a man wearing a belt and suspenders?” Whereas in France the film received almost unanimously positive reviews in major publications, stateside it topped out at a mere 55 percent “fresh rating” on the review-aggregator Web site Rotten Tomatoes. Even the movie’s detractors, however, seemed to agree that its pièce de résistance — a third-act car chase conceived as a rain-slicked homage to none other than The French Connection — was pretty damn cool. And, for the first time in Gray’s career, the audience took note, giving the director, whose previous films had struggled to get to $1 million at the box office, a modest $28 million hit.
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