Armageddon Time, James Gray’s dramatization of his childhood growing up in Queens in the year 1980, reads in many ways like the antithesis of Ricky D’Ambrose’s own Bildungskino released this year, The Cathedral: direct where the other is elliptical, far more overt in its reflection of the era’s politics (including pointed invocations of Reagan and improbable but true cameos from the Trump family), and concentrated in scenes of unsparing psychological detail. While Gray’s film seems in some ways like a reflection, conscious or unconscious, of the general structure of The 400 Blows — even opening with a scene where directorial stand-in Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is disciplined in class and structuring its climax around an ill-advised, youthful theft of a machine — its emotional tenor is closer to that of the agonizing pain of Pialat’s response film L’Enfance nue.
It isn’t accurate to say that Armageddon Time — shot in digital in a first for Gray, albeit with fantastic film emulation — wallows in its fraught family dynamic, brilliantly carried along by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as the mercurial, caring, yet abusive parents and a game Anthony Hopkins as the beloved grandfather. There are more than a few flights of melancholy fancy, especially a particularly moving sequence that shows Paul transported into a fugue state upon seeing a Kandinsky painting at the Guggenheim, imaging his own future success as a painter. But Gray does not shy away from the ugliness of his upbringing: the lively but unpredictable crowded family dinners; the racism directed towards his Black friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), which the Jewish Paul unthinkingly perpetuates through his claims of having a rich family without understanding the pain that his own ancestors went through; the continual struggle between his artistic aspirations and the cold reality of classroom discipline in both public and preparatory settings. As hokey as some of its beats can skew, this is still richly etched and beautiful work, where deliverance can only achieved through the sheer pragmatism of those who cannot succeed and a dawning realization of the rules of the game.