Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
As I watched James Gray’s We Own the Night, I couldn’t help but think about the great director Sydney Lumet and all of those fantastic police dramas of the 1970s. Nobody seemed to understand better that the police are people too, flaws and all. Of course Lumet’s films always took place among the New York City police, and We Own the Night follows suit. The cops here are not corrupt as they were in several of Lumet’s films but they surely aren’t perfect.
Taking place during the drug wars of the late 80s, the film follows two brothers, one a decorated cop (Mark Wahlberg. Surprise!) and the other a Brooklyn night club manager (Joaquin Phoenix). Their father (Robert Duvall) also works for the law, and needless to say he is much closer to his one son than to the other. The two boys have drifted so far apart that they even go by different last names, with Joseph (Wahlberg) using Grusinsky and Bobby (Phoenix) using his mother’s last name, Green. Soon enough, we learn that Alex Veadov (Vadim Nezhinski), a big shot Russian drug dealer, has been setting up shop in Bobby’s nightclub, and so his family in blue comes to him to ask for any information he might have. Bobby wants to help, but he’s also loyal to his friends and doesn’t want to rat on someone he knows. This sets up a moral dilemma, because as Duvall says to Bobby, “Sooner or later you have to decide which side you’re on.”
While at first Bobby has no intention of getting involved in the situation that changes quickly when Joseph is shot in retaliation for a bust on Veadov and his gang. He decides to go undercover for the police department, even though his father is against it. Without giving too much more away, let it be said that from here on out Bobby’s involvement gets deeper and deeper as he and his family – including his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes) – are drawn into a very dangerous situation.
We Own the Night was written and directed by Gray, and it’s clear that he’s far more gifted doing the latter. The film suffers from an episodic storyline that at times simply defies logic. While Gray means to show us how Bobby is slowly drawn into the drama surrounding his family, the screenplay seems to take a back seat to the film’s mood and look. There is a scene about halfway through in which drug dealer Veadov escapes police custody, and while we never see it happen, the whole thing is explained by Duvall to Phoenix in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. In another key scene where Phoenix goes undercover into Veadov’s drug operation and is discovered to have a wire, he utters a word which tells the cops trailing him that he’s been exposed. Seconds later they barge in firing random shots in all directions, and Phoenix has to jump out a three story building in order not to get shot. Wouldn’t they be more careful in that situation? Why doesn’t any cop know that he’s on their side? The scene makes for a suspenseful few minutes expertly shot by cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay, but it’s poorly written. It’s also a stretch to believe that Phoenix would be exposed so quickly in what seems to be his first (and only) assignment.
While Gray the writer did not create anything very original with these proceedings, Gray the director seems to be aware of this, and so he does his best to put beautiful flourishes on the finished product whenever possible. Three scenes in particular are so well shot that we almost forget about the shoddy writing. In addition to the aforementioned undercover scene, there is another where Bobby is being driven by police escort from one locale to another when they encounter Veadov’s gang. This sequence may go down as one of the best photographed and edited scenes involving cars since The French Connection. There is also a scene towards the end of the film in a wheat field that builds great suspense leading up to the films climax.
Along with the solid direction, there is also another reason to give the writing a pass, and that is the performances of Phoenix and Wahlberg as the brothers. While we may not buy much of what we’re watching, the same thankfully can not be said of the acting, and the relationship between the two is so powerful that it nearly transcends the screenplay’s flaws. By the end we feel as though their violent journey together has indeed brought them closer, and that Bobby’s eventual fate might even have been preordained. He was born into a family of cops and maybe it was just a matter of time before the partying stopped and his destiny took over. It’s the story about these brothers that makes me want to like We Own the Night so much. I just wish I could actually believe it.