328 Great Directors: James Gray

“I think the studios have done a brilliant job of creating the audience they’re now attempting to satisfy. There is a difference between the satisfaction and the exploitation of public tastes. If you give – and I’ve used this analogy many times, but it’s true – if you give somebody a Big Mac every day, and then give them salmon sushi, their first inclination is not to say that salmon sushi is the most delicious thing they ever ate, their first inclination is to say, ‘That’s weird and I don’t like it’. And it’s very hard to get them back.”

Why This Director?: Why not? That post-2000 track record is promising.

My Last Experience Was…: None.

What Did I Watch: Started with his first well liked work in The Yards (although I guess Little Odessa has some fans). Wanted to get around to We Own the Night but time ran short.

Where Does He Fit: The Yards sets us up immediately for various small disappointments, ranging from a child being told he cannot start eating until the guest of honor at the party arrives, to Mark Wahlberg’s recent prison release resulting in his life being in a grim, uncertain place: his mother has a bad heart (Ellen Burstyn), and the rest of his family is not treating him well. This story, sad and true but not exactly in a place of the road less traveled, is not what stands out. The visuals of this movie are pretty damn unusual for a drama that is standard but suffused with feeling, with Gray reportedly taking obsessive compulsive lengths to get things right and reportedly going way over budget as a result:


Everything is yellow and watercolored, with the alien visuals of Wahlberg’s character, Leo, creating a world where everything is bright and iridescent and wrong after all the time in prison. He cannot even get his way in terms of getting a job he was theoretically promised, and the cast is all suffering their own problems that have been compounded by his return.

Where I am not so sure The Yards succeeds is in its handling of Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron’s characters, with the latter as Leo’s cousin and the former dating her. Phoenix’s performances are hit and miss for me anyway, but playing such a loud and showy role is not really my flavor of his performances, with the script’s cliches that are heavily rooted in The Godfather movies getting played up. Theron’s character is a blank nothing of a love interest. It certainly leads to great stuff when Burstyn or his aunt (Faye Dunaway!) are put back into the thick of things and try and work the problems out to their own ends.

Still, the film moves quickly and about as enjoyably as it can considering murder is an ever present factor in this sad world that the characters live in, and while I wish the subplot with the Theron role had been dropped entirely (Phoenix was necessary), it showed great potential that poor Gray was unable to realize for 7 more years thanks to his money issues in making the thing. A 24 million budget that barely scraped up a million? Ouch. Thank goodness he got good reviews, or the directorial jail would have caused a permanent trip up the tracks for the analogous man.

Most Valuable Asset: His DPs and skill with actors.
Buzzword: Iridescent.
Most Excited For: We Own the Night, when I finally get to it.

Coming Up Next: Miguel Gomes, mad surrealist from Portugal.


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