**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall
written and directed by James Gray
by Walter Chaw A cop is gunned down on the street in front of his own house, prompting his brother to don a uniform and hunt down the dirty foreign dog who did it in a field of smoke and grass. To accomplish this, he has to betray one father for the legacy of another and take sides in a war with no possible resolution. If American Gangster is the finest American New Wave cop procedural since The French Connection/Prince of the City/Serpico, James Gray's We Own the Night is a revenge flick mired in Reagan-era morality (even the baddies are Russian) that assumes Dirty Harry's squinty-eyed psychopathic zeal, setting itself explicitly in 1988 New York while consoling itself with a cozy middlebrow outcome. What's doleful about the picture to me is that, philosophically, it suggests a certain reductive fatalism about masculinity-as-destiny in all this Sturm und Drang concerning vengeance, honour, and the thickness of blood. Yet it's not about ripping up social contracts to better heed the insect-like call to violent response, or restructuring society along bestial lines--rather, it's about sucking succour from the vein of traditional ideas of justice and law. At another time, perhaps, this State of Grace brand of serio-mythic gravitas would ring with a clearer tone (like, say, during the Eighties in which it's set)--but as a 2007 release, We Own the Night is dangerously, pretentiously, wilfully naïve. The pitfall of using weathered genre conventions as a springboard is that although it will occasionally lead to things like Jules Dassin's Night and the City and the French New Wave, it more often leads to things that don't understand they're only good when they're reinventing the wheel and not just peddling around it pathetically (à la Romeo Is Bleeding or We Own the Night) like some leashed circus bear.
The brother is Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix). His girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) opens the film in grand fashion, rubbing herself off as he kisses her in the office of the noisy nightclub he manages for the Russian mafia. We Own the Night is a collection of fairly remarkable set-pieces: Gray knows how to shoot a movie, how to score a movie, how to cast a movie--he just doesn't know how to get out of his own way when it comes to writing one. Bobby gets the scales lifted from his eyes after his brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall), both decorated police officers, are threatened by his employers, leading to the never-in-doubt transformation of Bobby from hedonistic creature of the nightlife into another stroke in the thin blue line: He finds himself in the sticky position of being drawn back into a lifestyle he'd apparently been trying to escape all of his adult life. Reasons aren't given and neither would they be necessary in a straight-up genre piece populated pointedly with types, yet if Gray wants genre to be the skeleton upon which to hang the flesh of studied characterizations, he'd have done better to not let genre sketch the defining motivations of his characters. Erected on muddy ground, We Own the Night is peopled entirely with straw men.
It'd be crippling were it not for a dazzling shootout in a dope-factory, a couple of perfect uses of Blondie, and, in clear homage to Friedkin's The French Connection, a near-silent chase sequence under the BMT West End Line scored with screams, moans, breaking glass, spattering raindrops, and the whisk-whisper-thump of wiper blades. The picture also boasts a most affecting demonstration of brotherly love as its ultimate moment and mission statement--if lists were made of such things, it'd be one of the year's best scenes from an otherwise mediocre film. But then there's the rest of We Own the Night, which feels like a sermon about predestination. At its best, it's a nightmare with our feet ankle-deep in sand as the bogeyman flies a plane into the most phallic memorials of our cultural legacies: WTC, Robert Duvall's frenulated dome, whatever. At its worst, it's an obviously talented director relying on an obviously limited screenwriter/scenarist.
If We Own the Night is about two brothers on opposite sides of the law who are, in fact, simultaneously vying for the same breed of unattainable love and approval from a paternal godhead, then this schism in Gray's artistic persona between over-qualified (for this kind of shit) director and under-qualified (for even this kind of shit) writer discovers a more poignant autobiographical counterpoint. Its simpering resolution becomes Gray's own wish-fulfillment fantasy of his perceived destiny; the film is the father he wants to do well by, the two parts of his persona (writer/director) vying for attention like Cain and Abel. Sad to say the end product is inevitably half-formed and inadequate. (Such is the fate of the offspring of incestuous congress.) You want to forgive it for wanting so badly to be gravid and spiritual in a genre that Gray seems to see exclusively as a necessary evil, but in a period that has witnessed the resurrection of the Nixonian western, paranoia thriller, horror parable, and noir, you have to do a lot better than We Own the Night.
by Bill Chambers Filmmaker James Gray has one really annoying quirk that turns listening to his otherwise serviceable commentary on the We Own the Night BD into an ordeal: he compulsively impersonates whomever he happens to mention by name--and not very well at that. His version of Robert Duvall sounds like Barney Rubble crossed with W.C. Fields, and while I have no idea what cinematographer Harris Savides sounds like, Gray unkindly portrays him as the personification of nails on a chalkboard. He also seems to believe he's far more esoteric than he actually is ("This opening song ['Heart of Glass'] is by a band called Blondie"), but his dilettantism is vastly preferable to the knee-jerk impersonations, especially since he paints for more evocative portraits of his collaborators once he stops channelling Rich Little. (Is it just me, or does every quotation of the 77-year-old Duvall's self-professed virility trigger thoughts of Lloyd Bridges's Izzy Mandelbaum?)