We Own the Night

| October 14, 2007

We Own the Night reunites screenwriter/director James Gray with both Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, who starred in Gray’s second feature film, The Yards. Add in Robert Duvall, and you have the promise of a pretty impressive evening of acting. The actors deliver, but Gray stumbles. Starting strong, the film stumbles over too many plot lines and clunky dialogue.
Phoenix and Wahlberg play brothers on opposite sides of the law. Phoenix is Bobby Green, a Brooklyn night club manager who enjoys cocaine, the nightlife, and his hot girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). Wahlberg is Joseph Grusinsky, an upright cop investigating a possible drug ring working through Green’s club. He wants Phoenix to become a snitch, but black sheep Green balks. Disappointed by his son’s lack of loyalty, police Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) warns Green that he will have to choose between his family and the drug dealers eventually.
Gray delivers this exposition with visual elegance, juxtaposing the worlds in which Green and Grusinsky live (Green, by the way, is the brothers’ mother’s maiden name–Green has hidden his familial connections from all but his faithful girlfriend). The film opens with Blondie seductively rocking out through the club speakers while Green engages in foreplay with Amada. Green breaks up a fight as he makes his way out of the club to visit his boss Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov), a Russian immigrant surrounded by grandchildren whose wife cannot help but offer Green plates of food. The scene is decidedly domestic and Green demonstrates affection for his boss.
Transition to Green and Amada arriving at a Catholic Church. They are conspicuous in their nightclub clothing as they enter the church meeting room in which the local police are celebrating the recent promotion of Green’s brother. The chief asks Amada how she puts up with Green, and she laughs that she’s a leo and can put up with anything. The silence following her joke speaks volumes about the couple’s complete incompatibility with this world of beer in plastic cups and casseroles on the buffet table.
Despite this strong opening, We Own the Night never quite comes together. The focus on family dynamics is hampered by the fact that Phoenix and Wahlberg act together in only a few scenes. In general, characters in this film react to events rather than initiate them. Gray keeps the film moving but perhaps he would better serve his movie by taking a moment to allow the characters to process their experiences. Yet when the characters do interact, the clichéd dialogue empties the scene of its potential power. Example: Wahlberg’s character is shot and hospitalized at one point in the film. When Green appears at the hospital, his father tells him, “you got what you wanted.” I mean, who would ever say that?
When the movie works, as in an exciting car chase scene, it can be riveting, but in between these moments, the intensity drops drastically. Gray devotes too much screen time to Green and his girlfriend without using the relationship to forward the plot. Eva Mendes is given very little to do with her emotionally simplistic girlfriend character–one of those characters that if removed from the film entirely, her absence would alter events very little.
We Own the Night is never boring, and Gray infuses the setup with tremendous potential in psychological and situational complexity. But the overly formulaic script lacks emotional depth, and the actors are constrained by a plot that tries to do too much.

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