I can’t pretend to be a disinterested observer of the career of James Gray. After writing a long and laudatory article on his 2000 film The Yards in Cinema Scope, Gray contacted me to say thanks, and we’ve since struck up a friendly correspondence that noticeably increases in anxiety (mine) whenever a new film of his is about to open. Critics who become acquainted with filmmakers are put in a naturally difficult position, seeking to avoid special pleading while simultaneously trying not to offend by saying anything too harsh. This writer has been fortunate, so far at least, in that Gray’s subsequent films—2007’s We Own the Night and the newly released Two Lovers—have been blessed with the same virtues as The Yards: a darkly exquisite visual palette; a distinctively hushed, delicate dramatic atmosphere; deeply felt performances whose restraint only heightens their moving affect; and a pervasive feeling of tenderness and sadness that undercuts the frequent, and bewildering, charges that Gray is a macho poseur, spinning out copycat Scorsese genre riffs.
It should be stressed here that this is almost exclusively a phenomenon of American criticism—Gray’s films have been famously well-received overseas, particularly in France. Nevertheless, the marked hostility to Gray in the US ever since The Yards remains one of the most curious cases of critical perversity in a field littered with them. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to dislike a filmmaker’s work, but the sneering condescension and wholesale dismissal directed towards Gray is both unwarranted by the films themselves and quite beyond the pale of civilized argument. In the case of Two Lovers, at least one prominent critic has even gone to the trouble of fabricating scenes whole the better to mock the film . . .