Even with a painfully small number of films made over the course of two decades, James Gray has established a unique voice within American cinema. No matter how indebted many think he is to the much-considered golden age of ’70s movie brats, his cinema bears, if anything, the mark of a life that’s been lived rather than seen through a silver screen. It’s evidenced in his primary occupations: family, heritage and the city of New York (specifically Queens and Brooklyn), all of which complement one another through narratives of self-realization and class struggle. The leads of his films are often, essentially, in some form of escape, all while entrapped through the standards of their family or, even, a mythology.
Little Odessa (1994)
Gray’s first feature begins with the carrying out of a work task by the film’s lead, Joshua: the act of killing, rather than, for instance, driving a truck or standing behind a store counter. Working simply as a hit man for New York’s Russian mafia, his life isn’t one of the decadent gangster, but simply cold and dirty murder. As presented through the prism of Gray’s films, the job is the life, with Joshua proving overtly cold and solitary. Yet once he returns to the eponymous working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of his Russian immigrant family, everything is bound to change.
In this case, Joshua’s nationality is important when discerning the degree to which he’s become estranged from his family. As played by Tim Roth with the typical British-actor-putting-on-a-Brando/Dean American accent, he further comes across as someone with a constructed tough-guy identity. On the other hand, his far-younger brother, Reuben, isn’t necessarily any different, which, as played by Edward Furlong, strangely complements his iconic Terminator 2 role. This, however, is less of an early-90s bad-boy heartthrob and more the appearance of a genuine outsider, drifting from one mundane activity to another through a cold winter. The difference between Joshua and Reuben is that the latter doesn’t necessarily have some good reason for isolation from his family that extends past pure boredom.
While Joshua’s disowned by his father, Arkady (him even telling Reuben that he’s not his brother anymore) for enacting a life of crime, the family patriarch isn’t necessarily deserving of his own moral high ground, being that he’s cheating on his dying wife / his children’s mother with a younger woman. (He further justifies himself by the working-class position of a newsstand clerk, which he’ll presumably do until the day he dies to support Reuben.) Once Joshua returns to Reuben’s life, however, the sibling exudes an undeniable pull, both in that he assumes the parental role he thinks Arkady can’t fulfill and that Reuben sees in him a contrast to his going-through-the-motions father. Yet the film wisely makes further insistence on Joshua not actually being the cool, confident killer that a teenage boy would take him to be, with the repeated, ostentatious flashing of his firearm signaling an immaturity that still lies beneath his steely attitude.
While describing the literary qualities of Gray’s films is easy, to overlook his formal traits is to not really understand their ultimate specificity. His aesthetics often seem more European than American: both the length of the takes and the frequent distance from characters in his exceptionally wide shots make the setting of Brighton Beach feel expansive when its characters see the place as restrictive. Even the film’s climactic shoot-out (or, rather, series of inelegant murders) is set solely in a suburban backyard, making fences and clotheslines all feel part of a labyrinthine structure.
Yet, in considering locations, Manhattan, like in most of Gray’s films, is never seen onscreen, for the aspirations of Little Odessa‘s characters don’t seem to align with the American Dream. Just getting by is enough, but even that will inevitably lead to tragedy.
The Yards (2000)
Within any film, the utterance of “I just want to be a productive person” should be an instant signifier that something very bad is about to happen. This sense of impending doom is very apparent throughout The Yards, as even a welcome-home party at the outset is rife with the tension of forgetting past sins, seeing as its recipient, Leo, is only back to his childhood Queens home following the end of a prison stint.
The first step in Leo’s tragedy, though, is his assumption that a reintegration into society is dependent upon those from his past. By that token, he also assumes that the requirements of both a steady job and reliable social circle should still be fulfilled by his childhood best friend, Willie, who was both responsible for his original crime and will draw him into the next.
Part of why Leo can’t escape Willie’s influence is that he’s essentially placed himself within the latter’s family, being an item with his friend’s cousin, Erica. Importantly, this brings forth the film’s concept of reconfigured families, as also seen with Leo’s aunt, Kitty, who remarries to a business owner, Frank, and thus places herself and her daughter into an upper-middle-class life. The separation between Leo, his mother, and their family becomes apparent with a trip to the suburbs for dinner, with particular regards to their spacious home — complete with a number of rooms that Gray will later emphasize when staging a series of dramatic confrontations.
That, itself, follows in the formal traditions of the best melodramas — whether they be from Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk — which made a spectacle out of domestic spaces and their downright strategic architecture, whether they be Frank’s home office (where devastating revelations will be made to Willie) or a staircase (where an accidental murder later takes place). Even while The Yards is heavily nocturnal, it ends up emphasizing interiors more than Little Odessa’s wintry outdoors; Harris Savides’s lighting transforms every one of these homes into what are essentially tombs. (Note the use of candles, which seem to make the film feel like it’s set in the 19th century rather than the late ’90s.)
In specific regards to its actors, this is perhaps the only film in which Mark Wahlberg emphasizes his eyes rather than his body or masculine demeanor; Leo is a mute witness, like Little Odessa’s Reuben, essentially manipulated by all those surrounding him or even playing spectator to what seems outside his control. His arc is, of course, to transcend this passivity, though by the film’s end he’s only rewarded with the most minor of victories: departing Queens on a train, which clearly mirrors the film’s beginning (this is a common narrative trait of Gray). While Leo may not be attaining his mother’s dream of one day being a suit-wearing businessman in downtown New York, removing himself from his home may at least serve as the first step in attaining independence from his family’s trouble — even if it’s likely he’ll sooner rather than later ride back into Queens.
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