Three films. Three films is all director James Gray has under his belt... currently. So why does a director with only 3 films (and honestly, only 2 can be seen by the mainstream public right now as the third has its debut in Cannes this week) register a full length write up? I ask you.. have you seen the two films of James Gray, namely "Little Odessa" (1994) and "The Yards" (2000)? If you have, then one understands the complex subtlety and traditional mannerisms of both films. They are both extraordinary works, both in the way they reveal subtle (yet shocking) brutality and in the way they peel apart the intimacy of family. At times when watching "The Yards", one is reminded of the epic family struggles presented in Coppola's "The Godafther" series. Or maybe its just the beautifuly underlit prowess of cinematographer Harry Savides that gives that film a classical look. Either way, "The Yards" was the first Gray film I saw.. and it simply blew me away. I've since gone back and watched his debut film, "Little Odessa" in which a subdued Tim Roth portrays a contract killer who returns home to Brighton Beach to carry out an assignment, all the while attemtping to reconnect with his estranged family. The connections between both films, heavily laden with themes of guilt and motherly redemption versus institutionalized crime, are too great to ignore. Either Gray is working out some demons in his closet or he's comfortable in this milieu. Either way, his eye for creating art is indelible.
At the age of 24, Gray made his first film, "Little Odessa". Starring Tim Roth as Joshua, it deliberately tracks Joshua as he returns home to Brighton Beach to carry out a contract hit. Not only is he hesitant to return home (Gray hesitantly infers that the local Russian mafia is after him for a murder he committed years ago) but his family wants nothing to do with him. They know what he does for a living and his father (played with grace and humanity by Maximilian Schell) throws him out of the house the first night he tries to visit his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave). The only re-connection he can form is with his little brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and old girlfriend Alla (Moira Kelly). As Joshua lulls away the time before his contract killing, the Russian mob finds out he's in town, eventually exacting disastrous consequences for all involved. This brief synopsis (which I'm terrible at writing and often hate doing when writing about film) fails to recognize the enormous power that writer-director Gray infuses in the film. It sounds cliche and a certainly dated, but "Little Odessa" hits all the right notes. The relationship that grows between Joshua and Reuben and Joshua and Alla is never forced, but undeniably believable. Moira Kelly does a nice job of evolving from suspicious to loving through only a few encounters. And Furlong, who clearly looks up and respects his brother from their first meeting on a snowy street, never reaches for emotional arches. Every performance is natural. And, as in his next film "The Yards", Gray layers the whole affair in sad loneliness as people connect and disconnect due to lifestyle choices. Perhaps the most powerful moment in "Little Odessa" comes when Joshua finally gets to sit on the edge of the bed with his dying mother and she casually reaches out for his hand, accepting the lifestyle he's chosen. Like Mark Wahlburg later in "The Yards", a big tough guy is relegated to a small boy right before our eyes.
It was six years later before Gray was given the chance to direct again. The rumors are still rampant that Gray was forced to compromise his vision for Miramax films, but "The Yards" doesn't feel like a truncated work. Expanding his actor base and his sensibilties for a large scale crime film that deals with the exploits of New York railyard corruption and political bribery, "The Yards" is, at heart, just as small as "Little Odessa" in terms of its mutual themes. In lieu of Tim Roth is Mark Wahlburg as Leo, an ex-con whose returned home from prison to start over with his fragile mother (Ellen Burstyn) but gets involved in police brutality and murder with his crime-related cousin Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) and uncle Frank (James Caan). Complicating matters is his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), engaged to Willie but haunted by accusations of a sexual relationship with cousin Leo years earlier. The tone of "The Yards" is akin to the strained battle between good and evil at the heart of "Little Odessa". And even though the wrangling of such big named stars happened, "The Yards" doesn't suffer from big-actoritis. Each person morphs into their roles easily. None better than Mark Wahlburg and Phoenix. I'd love to talk about his third film "We Own the Night" (starring Wahlburg and Phoenix again), releasing later this year, but I'll have to let the Cannes critics and others do the exposition on this one.
The most exciting thing about Gray is the framing of his films. "The Yards" certainly benefits from the magical lighting abilities of Harry Savides, but Gray knows how to place a camera for maximum effect. His silences are often more thrilling than the soundtrack. Take for example the dead silence as a killer stalks through the darkened apartment of Wahlburg, or the peripheral sounds of a hospital as Wahlburg makes a vital decision in "The Yards". There's also the quiet framing of the final shoot-out in "Little Odessa" as three people move like chess pieces inside and outside a wood frame house. And when Gray decides to get brutal, you feel the brutality. Who could forget the sounds of punches hitting flesh as Phoenix and Wahlburg duke it out in "The Yards" or the piercing gunshots in "Little Odessa". Not only do Gray films punctuate the inner turmoil, but their pretty adept at nailing the external conflict as well.
Even though both films were well received by critics on first release, they made a little splash at the box office. I can understand the lukewarm attendance for "Little Odessa" in 1994. Think of the bad timing of that film. 1994 saw the advent of the ultra-cool indie crime film, kickstarted by Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" then "Pulp Fiction". Not only was every other film being released tracking the dramatic progress of hit men and low-lifes, but they were so many of them For every "Red Rock West" there was a "Things to Do in Denver When Your Dead". For every "Boondock Saints" there was a "Truth or Consequences N.M.". It seems easy for a film like "Little Odessa" to get lost in the neo-new wave shuffle (although it did garner a Silver Lion award at the Venice film Fest that year, the only group to fully recognize the greatness of Gray's debut). But "The Yards" is a whole other matter. It had big names, a fall showcase release and plenty of word-of-mouth. I guess if both films were cult hits, I wouldn't feel the need for writing about them. There's something glamorous about proclaiming the greatness of something that only a few embrace. The two films of James Gray are glamorous.