We Own the Night (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Director James Gray's two previous features 1995's Little Odessa and 2000's The Yards both found a distinctive New York setting for gritty, character-based dramas about loyalty and moral choices. They were working-class sorts of movies: You've got a job to do, you do it, and you don't worry about making it look pretty.
But his latest effort, We Own the Night, falls into the same trappings as his previous works: Gray creates a compelling situation, but gets confused about how to deal with the people in that situation.
Set in 1988 Brooklyn, the story follows nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix). The black sheep in a multi-generation family of New York cops, Bobby is content enough to separate himself from the Grusinsky clan that he uses his mother's maiden name. But when his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is shot in connection with his narcotics investigation of a Russian gangster named Vadim (Alex Veadov) who frequents Bobby's club, he allows himself to become an insider informant for the police department, risking himself and his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) in the process.
To his credit, Gray sets up the kind of fundamental character tensions that should drive any effective drama with a kind of ruthless efficiency. We see Bobby's relationships with Amada and his club's Russian owner, Marat (Moni Moshonov), as surrogate family connections to replace the ones with Joseph and his own hard-nosed cop dad (Robert Duvall). We get scenes demonstrating the friction between Bobby and Joseph over their respective life choices. And we watch Bobby shift his allegiances back to his biological family, potentially alienating Amada in the process.
This no-frills approach to storytelling carries over to some of Gray's set pieces, which crackle with an intensity you'd love to see in every action film. In one terrific sequence, Bobby visits Vadim's drug operation while carrying a wire, his anxiety gradually increasing Vadim's suspicions that something is up. Later, when Vadim's men ambush a police convoy during a driving rainstorm, Bobby's sheer terror is echoed in the driving heartbeat sound of windshield wipers.
But We Own the Night somehow never carries that intensity into characters that live and breathe. While Phoenix does a lot with Bobby's own evolution, the rest of the characters feel like placeholders. It's hard to find anything particularly profound in a story when its primary subtext is spelled out in Duvall's pronouncement to Bobby that "sooner or later, either you're gonna be with us, or with the drug dealers."
And it's not just the characters that don't get a chance to breathe. The entire story feels like a three-hour epic squeezed into two hours; Bobby's character arc, in particular, blasts along at a pace that makes it hard to understand how the guy we saw in the first scene is even vaguely related to the one we see in the last scene. Gray builds something with all the trappings of a character piece, but it's really as relentless a plot machine as a lot of summer popcorn fare only it carries itself as though it's somehow more profound.
We Own the Night feels technically accomplished yet emotionally stunted. There's a word for that kind of filmmaking, no matter how many Oscar-nominated actors read the lines: workmanlike.