Dir: James Gray. Starring: Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell. 15, 115 minutes.
I’m convinced James Gray makes films not out of desire, but out of compulsion. Behind the thorny intimacy of Two Lovers (2008) or the cobwebbed dreams of dead explorers in The Lost City of Z (2016) lies a desperate search for answers to ugly questions. In Ad Astra (2019), Brad Pitt’s astronaut travels to the furthest reaches of the solar system in order to find his father, only to be told to go home and leave papa be. How does someone even start to process a rejection that profound?
Gray’s latest, Armageddon Time, is a flawed work. But it sees the filmmaker at his most vulnerable, as he twists the camera back on himself and asks: of all the paths that brought me here, how many were carved out by my own privilege? The question itself isn’t ugly, but the answer has a tendency to make the inquirer feel that way. Gray, more committed to truth than to ego, forges ahead anyway. While he’s not fully equipped for the task, there’s some worth in that sense of futility.
We’re in Queens, New York City. It’s 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for Gray’s childhood self, lives at the centre of a large and lively Jewish family. They indulge and abuse him in equal measure. He thinks he’s impervious to real trouble since, as he regularly boasts, his mother (Anne Hathaway), is president of the parent-teacher association. His grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), spoils him and nurtures his artistic impulses. But he’s also the kid who’ll run trembling into the bathroom when he hears the steady thud of his father (Jeremy Strong) ascending the stairs, knowing the violence that comes next.
Paul, chastised in class for drawing a caricature of his teacher, starts to bond with fellow disrupter Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Johnny is Black and lives with his grandmother, who’s sick. Paul thinks nothing of his new friend’s societal disadvantages. But there comes a point at which their fates start to diverge, as Armageddon Time maps out the tricky reality of what it means to be both the oppressor and the oppressed. Paul’s whiteness lets him dream, take risks, start trouble, and learn in his own time. But his grandfather, whose mother fled the pogroms in Ukraine, stands by his side with the quiet refrain of: “Never forget the past because you never know when they might come looking for you.”
The Graffs used to be the Grassersteins. Behind their liberal openness, clenched jaws and nervous glances betray an impulse towards self-preservation. Their racism trickles out in coded asides. Gray’s inclusion of both Ronald Reagan’s presidential election and Paul’s run-ins with the Trump family (a detail lifted directly from the director’s life) alerts his audience to what happens when the denial of privilege is weaponised in order to turn communities on each other.
Gray’s film, though, is busy – too busy – burrowing into the sad, confused and guilty head of its protagonist to find any wider clarity. His camera stays tight and intimate, while Christopher Spelman’s buzzing score captures the full mushroom cloud of a child’s internal shame. Aaron, in a key scene, tells Paul to stand up for boys like Johnny, “to be a mensch”. Hopkins, as wonderful as ever, says the line with absolute, clear-eyed sincerity. But what does “being a mensch” actually mean in practice? The person to ask, of course, would be Johnny, but Gray quite deliberately puts us at an arm’s length in order to faithfully maintain his protagonist’s myopia. It’s also, I think, a tacit admission that Gray doesn’t know what his answer would be anyway. As imperfect as Armageddon Time is, its director’s honesty is something to be appreciated.
‘Armageddon Time’ is in cinemas from 18 November