James Gray’s Two Lovers pulls no punches. In the vein of classic Hollywood romance-tragedies such as A Place in the Sun minus the gloss and the decisiveness, Gray offers up a grainy character study backed up with a constant post-modern uncertainty. It seems that Gray’s film, much like its characters, are trapped in between responsibility and desire.

Joaquin Phoenix, in what he claims is his final performance, plays Leonard, a bi-polar Jewish son living in Brighton Beach with his parents. This is an interesting character – probably much more interesting than he should be thanks to Phoenix’s oddly engrossing performance.

Though he is often hit-or-miss with his “method” twitches and mumbles (see Gray’s last film, We Own the Night, for an example of a miss), here Phoenix is spot on, embodying a sad man who at once recalls Marlon Brando’s Terry from On the Waterfront and Al Pacino’s Sonny from Dog Day Afternoon. Mind you, this performance may never scale to the levels of those (two of the greatest of all time), but it will certainly compete. And if this really is Phoenix’s final performance, what a way to go out. It’s one thing to imitate Johnny Cash – it is quite another to create you’re own character and convince the audience of his story’s purpose and importance.

Because Leonard is not an all-that important person. He meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw in a beautifully understated role) through his father (Moni Moshonov), whose attempting a business merger with Sandra’s father (Bob Ari) – the business is dry cleaning. Not soon after, Leonard runs into Michelle (a tormented Gwyneth Paltrow), a blonde-haired damsel in distress who is, among other things, not Jewish.

And so the story goes. No matter how it ends, you’ve heard it before. There’s nothing going on that breaks new ground – even the setting is familiar. But forget all of that. The three core performances – that of Phoenix, Shaw and Paltrow – push this film to places viewers should not expect it to go. Gray has emerged to become a great director of actors, discluding the aforementioned We Own the Night. As he did with Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg and Phoenix in the brutal 2000 film The Yards and Tim Roth in his debut film Little Odessa, Gray plays to each actor’s best qualities and abilities and works to express them on film. Phoenix plays tortured better than anyone while Paltrow transforms into a neurotic mess like a pro. Gray knows this and uses it to its utmost. Mix all this with Shaw’s innate sweetness and vulnerability, and you’ve got a modern tragedy set in a world that will feel down the street for some and down the hallway for others.

The camerawork is also not as minimal as it may appear from the smallness of the film or the boring poster. Many shots are corrupted by objects that sit, out of focus, on the sides and corners of the frame, preventing the viewer to breathe. All of this is a stylistic choice, and one that works to trap those watching, visually, in a way similar to Leonard’s.

At times the screenplay (written by Gray and Ric Menello, for Phoenix) is a tad bit lofty, offering character actions that nearly disrupt the humble tone of the whole film. In these moments of literary over-ambition, the performers save the film and maintain it’s authenticity. Take a scene in which Leonard joins Michelle and her friends to go to the club. He hits it off great with the girls, making small talk and cracking jokes. Though this feels incredibly out of character for Leonard, Phoenix keeps it within scope, his facial expressions suggesting a nervous child underneath all of the wit and charm. What could have been a narrative misstep becomes poignant layering, making the Leonard character extremely enigmatic.

Viewers will find themselves wondering what will happen to these three characters in the end, not completely sure of it. That, in itself, is a compliment to the power of these performances. We’ve seen this all before. But, then again, maybe we haven’t.

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