Movie buffs need no introduction to James Gray. They have been on a diet of penetrating, layered films that defy all genres, and examine home, family and heritage, for 20 years. And yet the vast majority of the general public remains unfamiliar with Gray’s work. As EL PAÍS observed 12 years ago, he is still the best unsuccessful director in the US, perhaps the best unknown in the world.
Over the years, Gray has given us Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra. Almost all have been tours de force; even the least of them – The Immigrant – is stunning. Many have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival while none have appeared on the Oscars’ radar. Now Armageddon Time, which distils the essence of his former work into something with an even greater sense of doom is Gray at his rawest.
It is a film about rebellious 11-year-old Paul Graff, played by Banks Repeta, coming to terms with the harsh realities of life in New York. It is about legacy and personal aspirations, Judaism and relationships between parents and children, the importance of embracing difference, integration, destiny, betrayal and blame. Semi-autobiographical, Paul, the protagonist grows up in the 1980s and is, to a great extent, Gray himself with his red hair and artistic aspirations which are discouraged by his parents, played by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong.
Each member of this middle-class Jewish family, with their stash of cash for a rainy day and their pursuit of the American dream, is deeply flawed, except for the grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, who provides the moral core of the story and is the only one who knows how to give Paul the kind of simple advice he can actually take on board. The rest of the family swing between misunderstanding and a tendency to violence. There is plenty of bad parenting – a father who is quick to reach for the belt – and tangible racism against the black community. If the public found it hard to sympathize with Gray’s earlier characters, Armageddon Time is just as challenging, if not more.
Against a backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s rise to power, seen by the family –and the director – as the beginning of the end, Armageddon Time at once affirms and denies the existence of the American dream. It’s a contradiction illustrated by the presence of two members of the Trump clan – Donald Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump, played by Jessica Chastain and Trump’s father, played by John Diehl. They surface at the private school Paul is sent to in a bid to set him on the path to a money-making career. It is a school Trump’s father was a big supporter of in real life. Maryanne Trump is seen here giving a talk to the students on ambition – the-world-is-yours-for-the-taking message which is clearly only for the rich and privileged, indicating the moment when neoliberalism is born.
Verging on a fable, this is very much a Gray movie with its ocher tones influenced by The Godfather’s Gordon Willis, and its understated pace. There are, of course, a couple of weaker moments, such as when Paul is daydreaming in front of the Kandinsky painting in the Guggenheim and unnecessary childish touches when he and his friend Johnny, played by Jaylin Webb, try to sell a computer they have stolen from school to a pawn shop.
But these do nothing to undermine the movie as a whole which remains faithful to a classical model that is rawer than ever, giving us believable characters that love, laugh and cry as they make their way through a life loaded with disappointment, but still worth living.