The opening scene of the first season Red Road episode “The Great Snake Battle” reminded me of a scene from James Gray’s directorial feature Little Odessa. Both use a skinny hallway of a rundown New York City tenement as their setting, both depict a passionate confrontation between father and son, and both show how quickly a power dynamic can change from one man to the next. The comparison is strengthened somewhat by the fact that Gray directed Road‘s pilot episode “Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream“; this fifth episode, focusing almost exclusively on main characters Phillip Kopus and Harold Jensen, is also the best since Gray’s opening hour.
We’ve seen how smart and manipulative Jason Momoa’s Kopus can be in pretty much every episode so far. He always seems to have the upper hand, even when he’s pissed off or cornered or spoken to like a child by his manic father Jack. It’s Jack and Phillip who come head-to-head in that dim hallway, the former ripping the door open with a gun in his hand and demanding his payment, the latter hardly saying a word at all. It’s not the fact that Phillip is quiet that makes this scene different — we’ve talked at length about the silent observations of Kopus, watching from afar and gathering ammunition to use against anyone and everyone. But he’s more than just quiet in this hallway scene. As his father rips into him, Kopus seems truly sad. Sad Kopus is without a doubt a new Kopus.
There are obvious similarities between James Gray’s third film We Own the Night and his first two features Little Odessa and The Yards, and they’re mostly positive points. All three are New York crime dramas that focus on families straddling the moral wires of right and wrong, all have strong supporting characters, and all have a good handful of unique and intense action scenes. Considered side-by-side We Own the Night might be the “glossiest” of the three, lacking some of the grit of Odessa and Yards but also lacking some of the exciting virility Gray brought to those films. Still, the result is a more-than-passable NYC crime story.
The premise is highly familiar, and that alone may relegate Night to the rung below the likes of the arrestingly deviant Little Odessa. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play Bobby and Joey, brothers on opposite sides of the law, the former owner of a seedy drug-fueled nightclub and the latter a golden boy NYPD officer. The events that bring them together aren’t altogether unfamiliar either. The big bad Russian drug dealer Vadim frequents Bobby’s place, so Joey (for some strange reason) believes his estranged brother to be the only person in the entire packed nightclub who can inform on him. Vadim (for some strange reason) suddenly puts an inordinate amount of trust in Bobby, letting him in on a secret to which only his most trusted henchmen are privy. If this all sounds disappointingly typical for an opposite-sides-of-the-law drama, that’s because it is.
A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the most violent and murderous time in the history of the city. Oscar Isaac plays ambitious immigrant Abel Morales, manager of a successful oil enterprise, and Jessica Chastain plays his beautiful wife/accountant. On the eve of a major business deal, Abel must simultaneously contend with a federal investigation into his practice and a band of hijackers attacking his drivers.
Things fall apart fast for Abel, A Serious Man style, with pretty much everyone turning against him, and it’s in this set-up that A Most Violent Year seems like it’s going to be a pretty great gangster film. Abel is beaten down but never defeated, constantly levelheaded and rarely unprideful. In one scene he speaks to three new employees about business procedure, and though we know he should probably be frantically dealing with everything that’s happened to him in the past week we find him here instead, describing sales tactics with such gusto that Jordan Belfort would buy oil from him. In scenes like this Isaac’s Abel recalls Pacino’s Michael Corleone more fully than any character you care to name, stonefaced as he looks people directly in the eye, staunch in his beliefs.
On the surface, The Yards isn’t a whole lot different than James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa. Both follow a young man with a rough past returning to his hometown after a long time away. Both explore the family dynamic in the wake of that return. Both watch as man and family alike are sucked back into old ways as if the place in which they all grew up would hold a dark fate regardless of how loudly they all raged against it. Both Little Odessa and The Yards, tragic movies about reluctant criminals, are criminally underseen as well (although they’re both now streaming on Netflix).
In Gray’s sophomore effort Mark Wahlberg is Leo, recent ex-con out on parole and returned to his ailing mother and his seedy extended family in Brooklyn. His good friend Willie is happiest to see him again, eager to reintroduce him to “the way things work”. Charlize Theron, James Caan and Faye Dunaway round out the impressive cast, but Joaquin Phoenix as Willie is the only one who mines his character for all he’s worth. If there’s anything that separates this feature from Little Odessa, it’s that the potential of The Yards is greater than the final result.
There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:
Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.