It seems that James Gray has finally started to establish himself as a director to be reckoned with in mainstream Hollywood, thanks to the recent releases of The Lost City of Z (2016) and Ad Astra (2019). However, he has quietly been at the helm of a series of consistently brilliant films since starting his career in 1994.
Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and released in 2008, is one of his strongest films. It follows Leonard (Phoenix), a man depressed after recently experiencing severe heartbreak, as he falls into the moral dilemma of having to choose between two women he develops feelings for – the far more balanced and caring Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and the volatile Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman experiencing her own troubles whom Leonard feels he can relate to and confide in.
Two Lovers was the first film wherein Gray started to detach from his previously set-up auteur style, that being crime dramas which were equally focused on personal troubles with family and religion, alongside merging traits from classical Hollywood melodramas within contemporary crime drama. For this film, Gray ditched this and leant completely into his melodramatic tendencies, producing his most emotional and tender film up to this point in his career (later to be beaten by The Immigrant in 2013), a film that looks at a man at his most vulnerable, faced with a harsh choice that he can’t seem to deal with effectively.
It’s also interesting that Gray chooses to allow his characters to be as unlikeable as they are at certain points in Two Lovers. Leonard’s moral dilemma is portrayed in such a way that it can be empathised with and understood, with the audience seeing him attempt to move on from his heartbreak while also grappling with his newfound feelings towards both Sandra and Michelle. Leonard is a man drowning in his emotions and his past, unable to see a future for himself other than one filled with despair – a suicide attempt in the opening scene makes this clear from the start. The icy cinematography by Joaquín Baca-Asay is helped along by the wintry setting of New York City, emphasising the emotional and mental isolation felt by Leonard as he continues to unintentionally put himself in harder situations emotionally. He may not have drowned at the beginning when he plunges himself into a freezing river, but he spends the entire film struggling to stay afloat nonetheless.
Two Lovers marked the beginning of a newer, experimental direction from Gray, one that would see him transition from a style reminiscent of early Scorsese to one more easily compared to Douglas Sirk. Gray finally started to break further into the mainstream with the release of The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, continuing to shift his focus across a wide range of genres but maintain his now trademark focus on masculinity (and its failings), family and moral hardships. It remains one of the most emotionally impactful films of the 2000s, and it remains an unfortunately overlooked melodrama.
Two Lovers is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and selected digital platforms. Watch the trailer below: