The tagline for James Gray’s latest film, Ad Astra, starring (and produced by) Brad Pitt, could be applied to all of the director’s movies: “The answers we seek are just outside our reach.” In this space adventure, Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut given the mission to go to the far reaches of space to try to save the Earth from a mysterious series of astronomical electric bursts that may have been caused by his estranged father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), himself an AWOL astronaut. But it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. To become physically close to his father, Roy must go to Neptune, far beyond the limits of the world he knows. To get emotionally close to the man who one day disappeared into the stars and was presumed dead, the son has to go after him in another sense of the term: He has to capture him. Calling the film Dad Astra—a common joke on Twitter—wasn’t so silly after all.
Many male filmmakers are interested in the gravitational pull of the father figure, but it is Gray’s almost roundabout approach to this classic complex that makes his work particularly and often surprisingly resonant. His focus tends to be on the son as an unstable entity, torn between the past that his family wants him to honor, and the unknown future—its frightening but exciting enigma. In his debut, Little Odessa (1994), written and directed when the filmmaker was 25, Gray presented this dilemma via a parable of two sons. Reuben Shapira (Edward Furlong) is a good teenager, helping his father, Arkady (Maximilian Schell) at his newsstand in their Russian Brooklyn neighborhood. His older brother Joshua (Tim Roth) is the opposite: A not-so-petty criminal who may have murdered a man, he is an abject figure, no longer welcome in the community of Little Odessa. In 2007’s We Own the Night, ambitious nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is forced to choose the side of his police officer brother Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) when the Russian mafia attacks him and their police chief father Burt (Robert Duvall); before this incursion, he’d been living dangerously close to the other side of the law. In these films, Gray follows the perspectives of the indecisive sons to better highlight the specific attractiveness of both paths presented to them—and to ultimately reveal how the dilemma between the law and opportunism, between traditions and the new, was always the father’s first. Arkady and Burt are both stubborn and uncompromising because it is their own lives that they hope to see validated in their sons’ choices. Far from being stereotypes of the “strict patriarch,” they are given great depth by the attention given to their sons’ inherited predicaments.
Such an indirect approach to a story’s emotional core isn’t typical for U.S. cinema, but rather recalls (especially in Little Odessa) the European films of Krzysztof Kieslowski or the Dardenne brothers, in which moral dilemmas are revealed to be much more complicated than simple dichotomies between right and wrong. Gray’s visual style functions accordingly and has often been called “classical,” a term hard to define for the modesty it implies. From his debut at a time when young American directors like Paul Thomas Anderson were following in the dynamic footsteps of Martin Scorsese, Gray has privileged static cameras and slow, revealing horizontal pans that turn a living room into its own world. In Ad Astra, such camera movements make clear the contrast between the infinite space around Roy and the limited dimension that his mind keeps returning to: his childhood home, his father—namely, his own life, usually so inconsequential at the scale of the universe but suddenly made to be as important to the whole world as it has always been to himself.
Gray ascribes great importance to the locales of his films because the sons’ explorations of their fathers’ hold over them requires physical space. Ad Astra, set in the near future, gives the father-son dynamic literally astronomical dimensions. Clifford had left Earth to have his own planet, but Roy is now attracted back toward him, as though the colossal distance between them had functioned like an elastic band, tensing as much as possible until it could propel them back together. In Little Odessa, Joshua had to go away to miss his hometown and better come back to finally confront his violent, oppressive father and push through their differences. Any departure seems like an escape into another world, yet confrontation seems inexorable. In We Own the Night, Bobby had dreamt of opening a club in Manhattan, a place as exotic to him as California is to Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor in 2008’s Two Lovers, a love triangle set again in Brooklyn but mostly limited to one apartment complex. Leonard’s dilemma is between two women that, to him, represent two different possible lives, one of which is in conflict with the one his parents have set for him.
Throughout his career, Gray has himself gone further outside of his comfort zone and left his native Brooklyn to follow characters with bigger ambitions. Much of 2016’s The Lost City of Z takes place in the Amazonian forest, where British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) keeps returning to try to find a mythical place said to be covered in gold and full of treasures. But unlike Gray’s previous characters (and similarly to Clifford in Ad Astra), Fawcett only ever returns to leave again, searching for a place that he believes only he could find and that will give his life some new meaning, outside the limiting boundaries of London’s Royal Geographical Society. And though it appears he may have found it, he never comes back to tell the tale.
Fawcett draws his teenage son, Jack (Tom Holland), into his search for a way out, and although Clifford has the same effect on his own son in Ad Astra, Roy doesn’t decide to explore unknown territories with the same enthusiasm that Jack had. What makes the difference? French poet Louis Aragon famously wrote that “The future of the man is the woman,” and Gray seems to agree. If women are not an overwhelming presence in the director’s work, many of them have great power over the men’s life choices. On his journey into space, Roy keeps reminiscing about his wife (Liv Tyler) who left him because of his being never really here—it was his father and his heritage that he always had in mind. When he returns to Little Odessa, Joshua begins an affair with a young woman from his past, but almost reluctantly so; he remains ambivalent about coming back into the fold and treats her with a certain macho aggression. By contrast, Bobby is madly in love with his girlfriend Amada in We Own the Night (Phoenix and Eva Mendes give them an incredibly sensual and playful chemistry), but she leaves him after he decides to join the police to protect his own life and his brother’s life. Romantic love in Gray’s oeuvre appears as a way out of the past, away from the father, and into the unknown—but not always a powerful enough repellant.
Two Lovers is entirely dedicated to this promise and its dizzying appeal and, by centering on a depressed man particularly ill-equipped to deal with the vertigo of the future, it makes abundantly clear just how difficult it is to break away without breaking down. Leonard is mesmerized by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) because she is everything that he isn’t—blond, wealthy, upwardly mobile—but he realizes too late that she is herself stuck in her own tragic love story with Ronald (Elias Koteas), an older, much wealthier man whose name is a twist on his own. Just as Leonard is attracted by Michelle’s world like a satellite, she is attracted to Ronald’s; their two orbits can intersect only once. After she leaves, Leonard immediately returns to the familiar pull of his family by getting engaged to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the lovely daughter of his father’s business associate. When a lover disappears, family doesn’t.
In many of Gray’s films, a brother tells his sibling “I love you” to mean “our family loves you more than anyone,” as in Little Odessa and the climax of We Own the Night. Such demonstrations of brotherly love are rare in U.S. cinema, and in Gray’s cinema, they are never gratuitous or overly sentimental; they evoke the bittersweet reality of a comfortable sort of entrapment. In his recent films, romance has appeared more promising, with Fawcett’s wife in The Lost City of Z encouraging her husband’s travels and eventual disappearance, and Roy in Ad Astra loving his father only to the stars and back. Yet in either case, a loss is always required; going your own way requires traveling light.
Although it may seem like an outlier in Gray’s filmography, his 2013 drama The Immigrant illustrates perhaps more brazenly how fathers are always both the point of departure and the destination for his protagonists, and for himself. After Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is taken off Ellis Island by the sleazy showman Bruno (Phoenix), he soon becomes at once her aspiring lover and her surrogate father, simultaneously exploiting her beauty and keeping her safe. In the film’s gut-punching last scene, however, Bruno finally admits his regrets and tells her, himself, to abandon him and leave New York with her sister. Although the film’s title would suggest otherwise, The Immigrant is truly Bruno’s film—as a father figure, a lover offering a woman a new life in the New World, and a trap that can’t give her the freedom she deserves. Toppling the father, for Gray, is necessary but no less heartbreaking; even if such a dynamic unfolds in a small neighborhood, it still feels like a cosmic event for those involved. And therein lies the point of most of Gray’s work: Only those lucky enough to have a good love by their side can hope for a one-way ticket out of the patriarch’s domain.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.