armageddon time

An excellent cast drives Armageddon Time, a ruthless look at the American Dream

3.5 stars out of 5

It’s a year for auteur-driven autobiographical cinema, and James Gray returns to the big screen with Armageddon Time, his follow-up to Ad Astra. Both films have a strange symbiosis that might not seem obvious on the surface; one is an almost literal return to childhood, and the other is an elusive space adventure. As they avoid obvious tropes of their respective genres (coming-of-age and science fiction), they situate the main character in a search for belonging, particularly within a fractured family unit. Though Armageddon Time is Gray’s most memoiresque film, the themes present here resonate throughout his career. 

Set in 1980s New York, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is the youngest son in a middle-class Jewish American family. He’s a preteen, testing boundaries with his parents, but he remains incredibly close with his grandfather. Paul struggles to fit in at his public school, disrupting class with his art and comedy. He becomes friends with a black boy in his class, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and starts to notice their punishments are unequal and disproportionally penalize Johnny.

In a stark, honest and often self-critical look at childhood, Gray positions his avatar, Paul, as a young boy trying to make sense of the world he lives in. Still a child, he imagines his family is rich; he tells Johnny they are wealthy, unaware that they are, at best, comfortably middle-class. In the early parts of the film, Paul doesn’t quite register what it means to be a Jewish American, how society only treats him and his loved ones as conditionally white. Failing to see the complexities at work, he can’t fully process the punishing anxiety and trauma his parents and grandparents hold onto. His resentment for them grows as he fails to understand how violence and oppression have changed how they navigate the world. 

The film examines the pitfalls of white guilt, particularly as an outsider. The family’s liberal conscience insists that he stands up against racism while wringing their hands over the bad influences of his underprivileged and diverse classmates. After they place him in a private school, his classmates are the upper crust of New York society. The Trump family casts a large shadow on this world (baby Donald makes an appearance as a bitterly bratty braggart), and we sense Gray’s attempt to weave connections between the insular, private worlds of the elites and the cyclical patterns of hierarchical violence that they perpetuate. Paul learns that to thrive in this world, he has to render himself invisible — to flatten his family legacy and even his sense of justice. To survive, Paul needs to blend in, to become part of a system that, a long time ago, led his grandfather to shorten their name to conceal their Jewish roots. The message is clear: It’s safer to blend in than to stand out. 

The deep sensitivity in exploring his autobiography and the legacy of “white” guilt does not extend to the depiction of the young black character, however. The attempts seem sincere but end up feeling incredibly limited, particularly in contrast to the breadth of complexity afforded the domestic life of the Graff family. Johnny remains unknowable, his life shrouded in mystery and clichés. He ends up feeling more like a device than a real person. Even the film’s darkened lighting, which evokes the quietness of a pre-Internet age, does little favour to the black characters, whose features are muddied and lost in shadows. 

The film works best within the family unit, letting actors act and react to one another. One of Gray’s greatest virtues as a writer and director has always been his understanding that great characters are often unreliable narrators of their own pain and desires. Consciously or not, people are deceptive, always trying to put their best and strongest foot forward. By the way Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), puts on a tough-guy persona, we understand his fear of being weak. Strong captures with rage and reserve a specific vulnerability in being a strong-armed disciplinarian and a working-class tradesman in a family of thinkers and artists that reveals a withering fragility. The entire cast is excellent, capturing the unease of doubt and fear that everything can come crashing down, that they might lose everything. 

Overall, Armageddon Time is a mixed bag and a missed opportunity. The central storyline about Paul’s friendship with Johnny feels frustratingly underexamined and overwhelms many of the film’s strengths. Gray is such a compelling and sensitive filmmaker that it’s difficult not to recommend the film strongly. It’s an often ruthless look at the American Dream without any genuine sentimentality or nostalgia. Things weren’t better back in the day, they were just a different shade of awful. ■

Armageddon Time (directed by James Gray)

Armageddon Time opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 4.

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