REVIEW: ‘Armageddon Time’ Is James Gray’s Attempt To Reckon With His Past

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Armageddon Time

Armageddon Time is written & directed by James Gray and serves as an autobiographical exploration of his childhood. At the beginning of the ’80s, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a kid with dreams of becoming a famous artist. And those dreams are a pleasant alternative to his reality: his father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is bearing down on him to get a good job, and his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), is considering putting him in another school. The only people who seem to understand him are his best friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).

Gray has a knack for digging deep into character, whether he’s making a period piece or a film that literally spans the expanse of space. It’s a trait that continues with Armageddon Time, as the viewer gets glimpses into Paul’s home life and his state of mind. A great example of this involves a scene where Paul and his classmates travel to the Guggenheim. Upon seeing the work of other artists, Paul immediately dips into a daydream where he imagines his makeshift superhero Captain United being treated the same. Similar sequences are peppered throughout the film, showcasing Paul’s creativity and how his family struggles to deal with his flights of fancy.

But make no mistake. This isn’t just a trip down memory lane for Gray but also a way for him to deal with the harsh truths of his upbringing and how they resonate today. Throughout the film, Paul and Johnny’s friendship hits several obstacles. Johnny, being Black, is constantly discriminated against. His teacher continually insults his intelligence. It’s implied that things at home are somewhat shaky, with references to an unseen cousin and an ailing grandmother. This builds up to a third act with one of the most realistic yet utterly depressing endings I’ve seen in a film this year.

Gray pulls no punches with the story, and I mean none. He showcases Paul’s parents as flawed, with Irving often giving in to fits of anger when disciplining his children. Esther dotes on Paul a little too much, allowing him to get away with antics like ordering Chinese takeout when they have perfectly good food. Strong and Hathaway lean into the complexity of their characters, and as the film progresses, more is revealed about their characters that put a lot of choices into context. In the end, Paul’s parents want what’s best for him, even if it stifles his creativity.

Regarding the younger actors, Repta and Webb have a chemistry that starts flowing from the first scene. Repta’s hyperactive energy and mile-a-minute mode of speech act as the perfect compliment to Webb’s more easygoing yet guarded performance. Watching them joke around and talk about their future plans feels less like you’re watching a movie than actually watching two teenagers hanging out. It makes the film’s final moments much sadder, as Paul learns the hard way that he enjoys privileges that Johnny doesn’t. Gray builds up the tension, leading the audience to believe everything will be alright, and then jerks the rug out from under them.

This is where Gray excels, as he confronts the ugly truth of his past and how it’s seeped into the modern day. For example, the new school that Paul goes to is benefited by Fred Trump. Yes, that Fred Trump. And other students have no issue throwing around racial epithets. Armageddon Time also explores how white privilege can blind even the most well-meaning people. Even if the Grays did move to America to escape persecution, they still had advantages due to their physical appearance and middle-class background. The only one willing to speak out is Aaron, with Hopkins delivering an impassioned speech as the film winds down. In imploring his grandson to speak up for others, Aaron delivers a pointed message that feels truly relevant, especially with the anti-Semitic remarks that have been cropping up from prominent figures.

Armageddon Time makes for a genuinely timely film, as James Gray takes a critical look at the events of his childhood and its underlying issues. The beauty of movies, like any art form, is that they can be a vehicle for viewers to connect with or for creators to speak their truth. It’s a testament to Gray’s talent that he can do both.

Armageddon Time is now playing in theaters.


Armageddon Time
  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

Armageddon Time makes for a genuinely timely film, as James Gray takes a critical look at the events of his childhood and its underlying issues. The beauty of movies, like any art form, is that they can be a vehicle for viewers to connect with or for creators to speak their truth. It’s a testament to Gray’s talent that he can do both.

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