In James Gray’s police drama We Own the Night, a family unit is deeply split. On one side there is Bobby, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who manages an undeniably hip Brooklyn night club named El Caribe whose Russian owners have ties to an organized ring of drug importers. On the other side of the fence are his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and their father Burt (Robert Duvall), both highly regarded members of the police force. The relationship between Bobby and his immediate family is heavily strained, with the former having gone down a path which the latter frown upon. This family tension has reached the point where Bobby goes under the family name Green rather than his true name, Grusinsky. As fate would have it, the authorities are on the hunt for the very same Russian mob with ties to Bobby’s club. When a police raid on El Caribe is answered by ruthless reprisals on the family from one of the mob’s leading men, Vadim (Alex Veadov), both sides are forced to cooperate, using their skills and knowledge of the Russian organization in order to bring an end to the violence. Perhaps through the fog of tragedy the dim lights of reconciliation can be spotted.
I read an online article not long ago which applauded the sincerity with which writer director James Gray tells his stories. In the worlds he creates (all of which could easily be seen as part of the same world), there is no room for irony, for anything ‘tongue and cheek’ nor for any hints of self-deprecation. He brings real drama to the table and his films tend to take themselves very seriously. The lighting, the camerawork, the editing, score and even the line delivery add a weight of emotions to We Own the Night. Phoenix, whose family and girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendez) is hit hard during the police investigation due to the mob’s incessant attacks, delivers much of his dialogue as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Every word and every hush is uttered with difficulty and with the pain of broken heart. But as the stakes kept getting raised, is that not precisely how he should feel? Many of the scenes take their time in developing, almost begging the viewer to remain patient and feel the agony that has befallen the four principle characters. Even Mark Wahlberg gets in on the act with some line delivery one must lend their ear a little bit in order to fully comprehend. It’s not a style suited for just anyone’s taste, but I took it as just another variation on film noir dialogue.
I find it very unsurprising that Gray’s effort came and went like the wind from the multiplexes a few years ago. One might be led to believe that We Own the Night, based on a plot synopsis, is a run of the mill family/cop drama with its own decent serving of obligatory action sequences. After all, that is, in many ways, exactly what the film has to offer. It’s hardly original and does serve some of the requisite scenes of violence and carnage. And yet James Gray is skilful enough to craft a film that doesn’t really feel like something terribly mainstream, and by extension he dances circles around those expectations we had coming in. Being sombre does not equal being ugly or repulsive. What Gray has in store with We Own the Night is a testament to the man’s attention to detail in the cinematography, lighting and shadow. Even the colour palette sprinkles the visual experience with something dark and attractive. This being the second Gray film I experience (the first being last year’s Two Lovers) I think he has quite the distinct style. The attention paid to the lighting of scenes is very interesting. It often feels as though the characters are washed in shadow, even when light is spread all over them. It’s like a reminder that behind every corner there is the endless possibility that things can go from bad to worse. I can see how this aesthetic may be a turn off for some. The space and mood in plenty of Gray’s scenes can feel almost oppressive at times, but it’s all handled very carefully and the end result is a memorable, if downbeat, experience. It’s quite enveloping really.
The editing and sound mixing play an immense role throughout the film and should also be commended, especially for the action scenes. Everything is exquisitely constructed to provide a visceral experience. I’m thinking most notably of a car chase in the middle section of the film when the police are escorting Bobby and his girlfriend from by car during a terribly rainy day. Naturally the Russian mob are well aware of the police’s strategy and opt to intercept the vehicles. It is a dark and stormy day when the assault kicks into high gear, and this is when director Gray puts into motion a thrilling audio and visual 5 minute sequence. The violent crashing of the raindrops on the roof of the cars, the crackling of shattered glass caused by shotgun bullets ripping through the windows, the point of view from inside Bobby’s car, etc. It really is a uniquely realized chase scene. Rather than offering a great number of exterior shots (even there are some at least), the frame gives the viewers a point of view from Bobby’s driving seat. There is a surprising moment even when, after zigzagging through the lanes, an approaching truck suddenly appears mere meters ahead. It only lasts a moment before Bobby showcases some risky manoeuvres in order to avoid oblivion, but I felt, in those few seconds, as if I were in the car with Bobby and Abba staring at death in the face. Even the incessant sound of the windshield wiper caressing the front window possessed something ominous.
If there is one element about We Own the Night that doesn’t reach the same heights as the sound and cinematography, it would have to be the script. The plot follows some dramatic beats which will surprise only those uninitiated to police dramas. As the story evolved, I was increasingly under the impression that James Gray had essentially written a very basic story as a launching pad for his aesthetic experiment. It’s not a bad story, it works well enough as a cop drama, only that everything feels very predictable. I appreciate the honesty found in the film, and a part of that comes from the performances of Phoenix, Wahlberg and Duvall. Another comes from the dialogue the actors deliver. Finally there is the story, along with all the individual plot developments, and they do suffer from a ‘been there, done that’ syndrome. I’d go so far as to say that without its aesthetic qualities, We Own the Night would only be a completely different movie, but one that wouldn’t be as remotely interesting as it stands now. The flatness in the script hurts some of the more dramatic twists and turns which directly affect the protagonists. Some of them did in fact cause the requisite emotional response from me, so I don’t want to give the impression that every single beat left me unimpressed (the film does have one surprise which I didn’t see coming at all near the beginning), but many others didn’t. It’s a shame because I think there was potential for a very unique and dynamic film somewhere, but the script, one of the most important ingredients in almost any film (except The Holy Mountain), just didn’t have that ‘oomph’ factor.
What we’re left with is somewhat of an experiment. There is no question that We Ownthe Night has a different feel, look and sound than many other films belonging to the same genre. Its uniqueness in that department does elevate it from other entries the likes of, say, Running Scared or Pride and Glory. Director James Gray is a man with a very interesting vision and this effort possesses is a clear indication of what he is capable of. His filmmography is by no means extensive, but he has certainly proven his worth as a director with artistic aspirations. Film, after all, is so much about what we see on screen, and Gray gets that part right. He just needed to work a few twitches into his script.