Like Martin Scorsese with Mean Streets or Victor Nunez with Ulee's Gold, James Gray makes films about the area he knows. That area is Brighton, which has served as Gray's dramatic stage for Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night. Gray's cinema is influenced by the pulverant pictures of the 1970s, and his first three works seemed to gestate within the womb of genre filmmaking. Within that framework, however, Gray strove to leave an indelible artistic impression on the content. Little Odessa is so equally impressive and precocious, that despite its limitations--Gray's determination to wring the most recondite ramifications from his Bergmanesque familial dichotomy is insatiable to the point of near-suffocation--it leaves an admirable afterglow that cannot be denied. The Yards is a scabrous generational portrait, and it plays like Gray's version of The Godfather (even to the point of James Caan graduating from Sonny Corleone to the Don Vito role). That the film does not quite reach in thematic importance what it maintains in textural and aesthetic consistency and agility--each tragic occurrence marked by an ominous glow into fading out darkness--again buttresses the picture's most visceral peaks such as a brutally realistic fight between Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. We Own the Night yearns to offer another telling of the Biblical contest of brothers, but Gray's contrasting properties of authorial filmmaking--graced by an objectivism not wholly dissimilar from Otto Preminger or Stanley Kubrick but with a dynamic cylinder of mythical filmic interpretation rooted in bonds of blood like a young Francis Ford Coppola or perhaps Spike Lee--is finally too great a melange at the picture's center for it to wholly succeed.
Two Lovers marks Gray's clean departure from crime dramas. Some have noted the picture as Gray's abandonment of genre filmmaking. However, Two Lovers may be best received as another genre exercise, but Gray has endeavored to craft an incisive romantic drama. Displaying great deference to the American films of the 1970s yet again, Two Lovers is an intensely discomfiting cine that feels like the American arthouse films that were, ironically, influenced by the French New Wave masterpieces that were themselves inspired by Hollywood classics in that exceedingly important decade for American cinema. In truth, Two Lovers is separate from Gray's three excursions into neo-noir neither in atmospherics nor tone--Gray's four pictures put aside one another could play like one long, chilly and autumnal autobiographical fever dream of life in Brighton--but simply in its story, grafted by Gray and Ric Menello's somber screenplay. As a result, the film features all of the disparate components that make Gray's work intriguing, though now with his latest film he may be compared to Hal Ashby, creator of some memorably prickly, vexing and emotionally complicated romances.
Two Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance is his third for Gray and probably his best. Phoenix plays what would appear to be another artistic silhouette belonging to Gray, an unstable, deeply troubled young man named Leonard Kraditor who is living with his parents and working for his father's dry-cleaning shop. Like Gray's previous filmic incarnations, Phoenix's Leonard and his family are Russian-Jewish inhabitants of Brighton, and Gray once again essays the particulars of this ethnic clan and the commodious personalities who populate it. Two Lovers details Leonard's tribal obligations to the patriarchal and matriarchal forces of his Jewish family, who both urge him to establish a serious relationship with Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend with whom the Kraditors wish to merge their respective dry-cleaning operations. Meanwhile, he is quickly becoming hopelessly infatuated with the mysterious Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow). Two Lovers as a title refers not only to the two respective women in Leonard's life but the duality of Leonard himself, who behaves like two different lovers with them. Basing his story in part on Dostoevsky's "White Nights" and "Notes on the Underground," Gray revisits the idea of the inevitable. That journey, however, is made considerably less archetypal than Gray's more testosterone-fueled underworld sagas.
Viewing the mating process through the delicate personal, ethnic and financial considerations, Gray delineates a painful and powerful film about a man so devastated by past romantic tragedy he has become suicidal. Phoenix, though perhaps on paper too old for the part, is more than up to the challenge posed by his director, displaying a vulnerability and enervation of being that is nothing less than mesmerizing. Shaw's part is small but she enhances her appearances with a sincerity that is deceptively moving. Paltrow has the larger and more opulently emotive part and she works with the screenplay to embody a flaky mirage of an idea as a person from Leonard's love-sick perspective.
As with Gray's previous work, a sense of seeping and creeping foreboding, signposted with stark, caliginous photography by Joaquin Baca-Asay, haunts the film. The environs are shadowy, the climate cold and hibernal. Paltrow is repeatedly shot from disorienting angles, as though to accentuate the off-kilter, enormously affected point-of-view of Leonard's whenever she is around. The actress's flowing blonde hair often shrouds her countenance, and she appears eerie. The visual communication that makes Gray's work peculiarly vivid in its offbeat, low-key gradations of light and dark, is refined in Two Lovers, entrusting the viewer to take note when the director utilizes his protagonist as the portal through which the film's images play, simultaneously experienced by Leonard and the viewer.
With his latest film, nominated for a Cesar for Best Foreign Language Picture in France, Gray has indeed continued to comment on his own singular obsessions and experiences. Two Lovers is a melancholic, unironic and simply-unfurled drama that contuses with scenes of potent, unadorned honesty like Leonard slyly following Michelle at a train terminal so she can finally notice him. This is a film in which the relationships all feel painfully authentic, and the misunderstandings and moments of isolation, bitterness and anger are earned responses to situations that seem beyond rational control. Gray's film is a maturely and finely crafted, composed and detailed account of a man in rebellion against his own existence, and all that existence entails. Such decidedly heartfelt, unmannered art is an increasingly rare delight.