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film review

Anne Hathaway, left, stars as Esther Graff and Anthony Hopkins stars as Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz in director James Gray's Armageddon Time.Anne Joyce/Focus Features

  • Armageddon Time
  • Written and directed by James Gray
  • Starring Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins
  • Classification R; 115 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 4

Critic’s Pick

God (or I should write G-d, for my fellow Jewish moviegoers) bless James Gray, patron saint of Jewish cinema. The New York filmmaker, whose work has largely been set in the same 15-square-kilometre patch of Queens (The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers), is a fiercely intimate and vulnerable artist, eagerly using his own family history to expand the canvas of what I’ll call Super-Semitic Cinema. Yet the director – whose skill for mining his surroundings is almost as impressive as his knack for getting into scrapes with studio executives – has never made a film so deeply personal, so intentionally and uncomfortably autobiographical, as his wonderful new movie, Armageddon Time.

Pulling apart the strings of a traumatic incident stitched into the fabric of his youth – one that the filmmaker seems to think mirrors a contemporary patch of the American psyche – Gray follows one year in the life of 12-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the youngest son of water-boiler repairman Irving (Jeremy Strong) and homemaker/PTA president Esther (Anne Hathaway) in 1980 Flushing. In the Graffs’ solidly middle-class Jewish/“Jew-ish” household – there are Shabbos dinners interrupted by Chinese takeout, plenty of talk about antisemitism but no regular visits to synagogue – Paul feels lost, anxious, confused. He is the wannabe artist and amateur class clown to his more serious and studious older brother. He is an antic source of stress for his overburdened parents, who seem devoted to one another while perpetually on the verge of divorce. He is more oy than boy. But Paul does find comfort in two unlikely, core-altering friendships.

The first is with his maternal grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), a patient, kind and wholly comforting source of gentlemanly reason in the sometimes impolite and often loud (so very loud) Graff household. Encouraging Paul to both follow his artistic passions and honour his Jewish heritage by sticking up for the little guy (“Be a mensch,” is the man’s unofficial motto), Aaron anchors his grandson’s life with a polished sense of old-world honour that is irresistibly charming.

Just as important to Paul, though ultimately more destabilizing, is his relationship with a new school friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student from a broken home who bears the invisible injuries of a lifetime marked by prejudice. Whether causing mischief together in class or hiding out in Paul’s backyard clubhouse, the pair are hopelessly in sync with one another, two young boys who believe that they have the entirety of the world figured out for themselves. But soon, Paul places both of them in the middle of a predicament small yet all the same life-altering – a mini-Armageddon that rivals the fiery cataclysm that the newly elected Ronald Reagan blathers on about every night on the Graffs’ television set. (Yes, the Clash cover of Armagideon Time makes an appearance, too.)

Jaylin Webb, left, as Johnny Crocker and Banks Repeta as Paul Graff in Armageddon Time.Courtesy of Focus Features/Focus Features

Gray fills his memory play with curiously enticing detours, including one extended cameo from an actress who I won’t reveal that rips his audience right into the present before splashing them back down in the 1980s. But every detail and narrative swerve are stacked on top of the other to build a monumental story of compromises and consequences. This is a brave film, bracing and thoughtful.

It is also, at times, painfully funny. From an early class-attendance scene that I’m convinced is a riff on Wet Hot American Summer to the boisterous tumult of the Graff household, where dinner seems to be a competitive sport in which everyone gets an on-field injury, there is a baseline of caustic humour here that feels made for Jews, by Jews. Any Gray fan who has watched interview clips with the director shouldn’t exactly be surprised at the acidity of the humour on display – the man could be a stand-up comedian, should he desire a slightly less anxiety-inducing career. But Gray’s nervy comedy also helps cut through some of Armageddon Time’s heftier sentimentality.

Having previously enjoyed a long working relationship with Joaquin Phoenix (who starred in four of the director’s films), Gray casts new, equally intense collaborators with the triumvirate of Strong, Hathaway and Hopkins. The infamously committed Strong is a world away from the elite neuroses of HBO’s Succession, here compacting anger and disappointment into a sturdy portrait of working-stiff weariness. Hathaway matches her on-screen husband beat for beat with a distressing amount of exhaustion, until it seems that the actress just might crawl up into a corner and disappear. And Hopkins offers a grandfather for the ages – so perfectly upstanding and inspiring that he will inspire you to make a long put-off phone call to your own zaidie.

Meanwhile, in a year jammed with badly miscalculated child performances – prepare yourself now for Florian Zeller’s The Son, never mind the youngest kid at the centre of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which come to think of it would make a fascinating double bill of Semitic Cinema with Armageddon Time – Gray finds a strong avatar for his younger self in Banks. Displaying a naivete that still flickers with world-weariness, the young actor carries the majority of the film’s run time with an endearing confidence. Mazel tov, young Banks. Today you are a mensch.