James Gray is having a moment. His 25-year career as a writer-director encompasses seven movies, many well-reviewed and almost all underseen, but despite the ever-shrinking audience for critically acclaimed art movies or even just movies made for adults uninterested in superheroes, despite one of his best-loved movies getting the Harvey Weinstein spiteful-shelving treatment, Gray is getting more movies made now than ever. Ad Astra is his latest, arriving just two and a half years after The Lost City of Z, with $80 million worth of big-studio backing from Fox, movie-star backing from Brad Pitt, and a 3,400-screen release—easily the widest in his filmography, which has just one other movie that played more than 1,000 screens (We Own the Night, which came out 12 years ago). A recent New Yorker profile goes deep, and glowing, on his methods, his work, and the cultish adoration it’s attracted. It’s enough to make a Gray skeptic feel downright heretical.
This is absurd, of course; by most measures, Gray remains an underdog, as even some of his fans have anticipated, mock-gleefully, the bafflement with which general audiences will greet Ad Astra, which is a space adventure movie, yes, but a very James Gray one, in which a taciturn Brad Pitt searches the outer reaches of the cosmos for his presumed-dead astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). The adventuring is quixotic and melancholy, like it was in Gray’s The Lost City of Z, though not all of its touchstones are as lofty as the oft-cited Apocalypse Now. Gray’s portrayal of the moon, sort of a commercially accessible weigh station with an Applebee’s and bands of moon pirates, owes a debt (consciously or not) to the moon-set episode of Futurama. The casting of Jones and also Donald Sutherland brings to mind Space Cowboys (which, I must stress, rules). Where the movie earns its 2001 and Apocalypse Now comparisons are the visuals, which are often stunning: never overdesigned or fussy, often spare and evocative, the complicated mechanics of space travel simplified and sometimes abstracted. The moon is depicted almost entirely in gray, black, and splashes of gold. Color-bathed corridors are both gorgeous and oppressive. Space has been depicted as beautiful and lonely before, but Ad Astra makes it feel scary, solitary, and otherworldly even in comparison to other space movies. It’s like am unsettling dream someone had after watching Gravity.
In other words: How the hell did I not like this movie more?
This happens almost every time I watch a James Gray picture: The distinct sense that what’s on screen has been well-crafted, that the subject matter appeals to me in theory, that the actors are performing with grace and subtlety, and that it is not really working for me on an emotional or narrative level. (Though Lost City of Z comes closer than most.) In Ad Astra, almost everyone speaks in hushed, even tones; their souls ache, but no one seems especially fussed about the possible destruction of Earth, which is why Pitt’s spaceman is sent to find his dad in the first place. Our glimpse into his psyche isn’t a glimpse at all—blurry faces are a recurring visual motif—but an eavesdropping on his thoughts via some sub-Malickian narration, the kind of explanatory muck that drops line about the sins of the father being revisited upon the son about an hour after you’ve said to yourself, got it, this is a sins-of-the-father type of thing.
There’s been some speculation that the narration was added during the movie’s apparently extended post-production process, maybe against Gray’s objections. If it’s either his original work or his patchwork solution to executive concerns, it’s both baffling and consistent with his weaknesses; writing has never been his strong suit. In a movie like Two Lovers, the stilted dialogue feels, at least, of a piece with his characters’ struggles to communicate, and maybe that’s always supposed to be the case. Certainly a level of clumsy formality in speech has been accepted as a stylistic tic for the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Woody Allen, countless others. But those filmmakers usually get dinged for their clunkiness; Gray seems immune, even though he often makes what amounts to extraordinarily talky silent movies.
Granted, I tend to think too much emphasis is placed on writing in movies, especially dialogue. There are filmmakers who can create their own distinctive music out of it—Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Leslye Headland, Wes Anderson—and outside of that realm, it doesn’t much matter to me if James Cameron gets a little dorky or Joe Swanberg leaves his actors in charge of it. But it’s not just Gray’s ponderous obviousness that gets me. It’s the way that he self-consciously toys with familiar narratives, making adventure movies about loneliness or melodramas with the veneer of history or romances where romance solves nothing. Again, it all sounds pretty great in theory, but it often robs his movies of momentum, especially when it becomes clear where they’re going early on.
We Own the Night, his cops-and-crooks thriller, plays like an outline of a satisfying crime picture. The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan, put its star through a simulacra of suffering not so far removed from an Oscar hopeful. In Ad Astra, we’re meant to feel for the alienation and disappointment of the Pitt character, and his failed marriage to a non-character played by Liv Tyler, seen mostly looking sad and making her exit. Maybe this is concise, visual storytelling—or maybe it’s an astronaut-family cliché played out with a barely-written character.
Given the effectiveness of his more genre-y moments—the superb rain-soaked car-chase in We Own the Night; a shoot-out with moon pirates in Ad Astra—his insistence on paring his stories down to a kind of quietly masculine anguish feels perverse. Despite the real possibility for audience puzzlement, Ad Astra is one of his more accessible movies, because it does deliver some spooky, otherworldly space-travel suspense, chased with that sense of crushing loneliness. I’m not sorry I saw it and may well watch it again at some point. But everything Gray observes in the movie feels like a foregone conclusion, maybe because so much of it, whether we’re watching Pitt grapple with his dad’s remoteness or maybe commit de facto serial murder, proceeds with a kind of dully declarative evenness. I’m told he’s interrogating notions of masculinity, but mostly he seems to be making it kind of boring. I spend a lot of time during Gray’s movies wondering if there’s a reference I’m not getting.
Filmmakers like Tarantino have been charged with an inability to see beyond that frame of (movie) reference—of constructing an alternate reality super-saturated with movie-world ephemera and little resemblance to reality as we know it. But I’ve never felt especially puzzled by Tarantino’s references, or smothered by that referential quality; his movies are easy enough to take at face value, and too engaging for me to wonder if he’s “really” just cribbing moments from other movies that did it first (I tend to doubt it—and even if he is, that’s so much harder than it looks). Maybe that’s because Tarantino plays more to the cheap seats; maybe the cheap seats is where I hang out, wondering what’s the big deal about with the unshowy grace of James Gray.
I have similar feelings about Todd Haynes, another filmmakers who does pastiche-riffing with obviously encyclopedic film knowledge. But I can recognize a few times when I’ve found Haynes’ work genuinely touching; I may not adore the restraint of Carol, but it has a tactility that bursts through its immaculate restraint—that tension between its lush beauty and its rougher 16mm grain.
In my less charitable moments, I think that a lot of critics tend to prize restraint sometimes to the point of treating it as an end unto itself. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what’s going on with the notion that James Gray has delivered any masterpieces, let alone as many as three or four in a row; obviously there’s a resonance about his work that touches people, and more than anything, I’m continually disappointed when it doesn’t reach me. I would suggest, though, that he’s uncommonly talented in convincing at least part of the audience that his symbols and images and references mean more because the movies around them are so unadorned. That’s what I see in between the gorgeous compositions and evocative moods and well-wrought performances: an extended tribute to, not interrogation of, the value of impeccably sourced masculine restraint.