What a disappointment this Armageddon Time, a new feature film from the immensely talented filmmaker James Gray, awarded and acclaimed from his first film made when he was only 24 years old. A polished, but ironically anonymous production that lacks its depth on almost every level.
It’s no secret, Ad Astra, his previous feature film, which was also his biggest and most ambitious in his career, made him see all the colors. Sensitive, but caught between two desires, the film remained suspended between the demands of the studios and the passion of its creator. It is therefore not surprising that in order to recharge his batteries, James Gray wanted to return to the source of something imminently personal.
So, after reaching for the stars and exploring the future for the first time, he drastically returned to the past, but also to his native Queens, which he had not visited for over a decade. Freely inspired by his childhood, we should have found there his most sensitive and personal film of his career and it is somewhat with these expectations that we approached the film, already knowing all his know-how . The result could hardly be more contradictory.
We knew we’d be ready to follow Gray anywhere, as evidenced by his sublime The Lost City of Z caught up in the dangers and splendors of the Amazon, but we obviously have a weakness when he wanders through the alleys of the small neighborhoods with the criminals not too far away, the kind of criminal he knows like the back of his hand with its more than concise Little Odessa, The Yards and of course We Own the Night. And this, even if his sensitivity still made us drool when he delivered, as if by surprise, his disconcerting Two Lovers. From a filmography that has never been afraid to dare, we would not have expected to find it in such a simplistic form.
Is that it Armageddon Time finds in his heart a mischievous young boy who is a bit lost and who everyone tries to put back on the right path. Except that there are in parallel all the problems of the time (which are ultimately almost all the same as today) of the social and racial class struggle.
The era is recreated with all the delicacy that we know from the director, and it is impossible not to fully immerse yourself in this not so distant reality, especially with the images of the wonderful Darius Khondji. The cast does have a few nuggets, especially because Anthony Hopkins has all the greatness and gentleness he has repeatedly demonstrated, while Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway (with a judiciously restrained game) form a couple that is more than realistic and unifying as much in its strengths than in its weaknesses.
Where we are less convinced is when the script aims to be more claiming (with far too much simplicity to demonstrate the true color of the issues), but also when it turns more into an involuntary absurdity, as in these scenes of families where a half-voluntary burlesque is sorely lacking in naturalness. This rhythm is not given to everyone, but the lack of naturalness is usually not a criticism that can be attributed to Gray and to do so here is certainly painful. And when Jessica Chastain finally shows up playing Maryanne Trump, Donald’s sister, we are on the verge of bad parody.
At less than two hours in length, the film seems much longer since there are few surprises and all the land surveyed has been surveyed a hundred times and usually in the best way. Perhaps entrusting the entire editing to Scott Morris, assistant in two of his previous films, was not yet a good idea. We have to believe that Gray should have waited a little longer before making his big comeback, history, perhaps, to recover more healthily from his emotions, but also to be able to refine his memories of youth.
Yet the themes and concerns of the director are there, the importance of the family in the heart, the duality of two different backgrounds as well, but not the force of acuity and accuracy that he had always been able to show us.
Without a real moment of anthology, James Gray develops here almost exclusively the much more nerdy side that he has never hidden, but always usually does with much more tact or at least with a richer depth, a more felt poetry. and a more dazzling, heartbreaking romanticism.
Armageddon Time could be the film of many filmmakers and we find it a pity not to find, in this ode to his past, all the genius that has never ceased to be attributed to the filmmaker. To see perhaps, but definitely not for those who would like to discover all the talent of James Gray, for that there are all the other films which until now had not offered any bad rating.
Armageddon Time hits theaters this Friday, November 4.