James Gray loves opera. Even if he didn’t speak about it in almost every interview he gives, that much would still be fully apparent in his actual work. The high emotional registers of The Immigrant and Two Lovers, and the grand plot gestures of the underrated We Own the Night all reflect Gray’s knowledge of and passion for operatic form.

It’s also evident in The Yards, Gray’s second film, which was shot in 1998 but not released until 2000—and even then, in a compromised version. The film’s reception was disappointing, and it’s taken time, at least for American critics, to come around to Gray’s uniquely classical style of filmmaking. In addition to opera, Gray draws on 1970s New Hollywood and European art cinema aesthetics. The gorgeous, brown-hued photography of The Immigrant has been compared with the work of Gordon Willis. The Yards and We Own the Night clearly owe a debt to Sidney Lumet in their depiction of big city corruption. And the signature moody atmosphere in his films sometimes recalls Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski.

But it’s a mistake to only consider Gray’s work in terms of his influences. His first film, Little Odessa, along with The Yards and, to a lesser extent, We Own the Night—Gray’s most commercial venture to date—tend to get lumped into the vaguely damning category of the crime picture, the implication being that only when Gray moved away from genre-bound domain did he fully come into his own and achieve his potential. Looking at these three films now, though, in light of his recent work, it’s clear that Gray emerged as a fully formed artist, and that his early work isn’t really so distinct from his more recent films—and certainly not limited by the demands of genre. Little Odessa, an impressive debut, is a little rough around the edges, but it takes on the same themes he’s continued to explore in subsequent films. The next four films are nearly on the same level as one another, quality-wise, so only personal taste can determine which one is “best.” (In my view, it’s Two Lovers.)

The element that recurs throughout Gray’s entire body of work is family. In The Yards, he creates a complicated family dynamic that hinges on guilt, responsibility and conflicted loyalty. Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), just out of prison for car theft, seeks out employment from his uncle Frank (James Caan), who owns a company that repairs railway cars. Frank offers to help put him through the required training to become a machinist, but Leo turns instead to his best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), whose work for Frank mostly entails bribing public officials and sabotaging rival companies’ work.

Willie is romantically involved with Leo’s cousin, Erica (Charlize Theron), whose relationship with Leo is suggestively ambiguous. Erica seems contentedly ignorant to the seedy nature of her step-father’s business, and Willie’s role in it. Willie assures the doubtful Leo that it’s all standard operating procedure, but when a close call with the police in the rail yards leaves one man dead by Willie’s hand, and a policeman left in critical condition by Leo’s, everything comes out in the open. Leo is a wanted man, to the shame of his ill mother (Ellen Burstyn). Erica begins to see Willie’s true nature. Frank goes into damage-control mode, denying Leo’s involvement with his company. Leo is forced to participate in the cover-up, both for his own sake and for his family’s, but all he wants to do is live a normal life.

When Leo returns home at the beginning of the film, his mother toasts to the good times ahead, but it’s apparent right from the start that The Yards will be a tragedy of Greek proportions. Gray sustains a solemn tone throughout, aided by Howard Shore’s mournful score, Harris Savides’s shadowy photography and Wahlberg’s withdrawn performance. The film doesn’t have the same emotional power as Two Lovers or The Immigrant, but the plot’s development evinces a sense of fate, or some other outside force, from which the characters are powerless to break free. By the end, several innocent people are dead, and a family is torn apart.

One mark of a great director is the ability to coax career-best work out of his or her collaborators. Gray has claimed that he’s terrible at directing actors, but never have Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Jeremy Renner and, arguably, even Isabella Rossellini been better than they were when working with Gray. Paul Thomas Anderson harnessed the more flamboyant side of Wahlberg, familiar to fans of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, in Boogie Nights, but Gray brings out a more reticent, gloomy performance in The Yards. Phoenix, in particular, is a marvel in Gray’s work; the four films he’s starred in for Gray capture his entire range, from charismatic and in-control to insecure and inhibited.

Even more impressive, though, is the continuity between all of Gray’s films. There’s no mistaking his work for the work of any other director. His themes of family and conflicted loyalties recur again and again; his visual sensibility, which could never be re-created with digital video, is distinct and remarkable; and his commitment to classical storytelling hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Gray’s upcoming film, The Lost City of Z, sounds like something completely different in terms of setting and plot, but if the pattern holds true, it should be another masterpiece.

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