Theatrical Review: James Gray
has assembled what looks and sounds like a good, smart thriller with We Own the Night: a strong cast, serious aspirations, a specific time and place (Brooklyn, 1988). The story is shopworn, but not without dramatic potential: Joaquin Phoenix
and Mark Wahlberg
play brothers on the opposite-ish sides of the law; Joseph (Wahlberg) has followed in the footsteps of their father (Robert Duvall
) and joined the NYPD while Bobby (Phoenix) rebels by running a seedy nightclub. With a drug dealer inching into Bobby's territory, he's forced to reconsider his loyalties.
Meanwhile, the movie forces me to reconsider my own, because it spends a lot more time seeming like a good movie than actually being one. For a film with such an ominous, encompassing title, We Own the Night is content to skim the surface of the NYPD, lacking the obsessive attention to detail that distinguishes other crime-heavy glimpses into bygone American eras as diverse as Gangs of New York, Zodiac
, or The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
. Even Night's period details feel half-assed and incidental, like background songs that sound more like bits of '90s soundtracks to '80s-set movies instead of 1988 itself. In fact, though an early subtitle says so, the year doesn't even seem to be 1988 in particular but a vague, amorphous "eighties," Wedding Singer style. Article continues below
Though the marketing campaign suggests a Departed-style face-off, the film is really less about the Wahlberg character than Phoenix's Bobby and his journey from family black sheep to, well, I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise or, more likely, the faint sense of disappointment chased with a hint of disbelief. After discounting the misleading ads, Wahlberg still has surprisingly little to do; even as a supporting player, he's one-note (and it's a note that, fair or not, compares unfavorably with the one he hit so perfectly in The Departed
It's not Wahlberg's fault; his Joseph is only the most extreme example in a cast of characters whose relationships are defined immediately and simplistically. This leaves little to say about the performances, though everyone here seems to be giving it their best -- particularly Eva Mendes
, whose gravitas varies dramatically from movie to movie but provides more warmth than any of the creaky family conflict. The star of We Own the Night is the writing, in the sense that the star of a flood is water.
Sometimes you pay a compliment to a particular scene by saying that it tells you in 30 seconds everything you need to know about a character or group of characters. Writer-director James Gray does accomplishes this in half the time... but many times the length, if you know what I mean. Phoenix, Wahlberg, and Duvall are talented men, but their early scenes together proceed with numbing predictability: Phoenix will act dismissive and cynical; Duvall and Wahlberg will be the humorless, uptight law-abiders.
Even Bobby, supposedly one of the more dynamic and shaded people onscreen, comes off as different shades of dull, because no matter how much plot and anguish Gray lathers on, the material doesn't come alive. It moves forward, certainly; the film isn't exactly boring. But nor does much of it feel necessary; it could be the same movie at 15 or 200 minutes as it is at a 120.
It's a shame, because Gray isn't a bad director. We Own the Night has a couple of set pieces -- a character's trip into a drug den while wearing a wire, a caravan of cop cars ambushed in the rain -- that could've easily fallen flat either from familiarity or slick stylization attempting to compensate for the same. Instead, Gray handles them with unexpected, almost quiet creepiness; they're easily the most memorable bits of the film. Maybe that's because they get everyone to shut up -- the visceral action forces characters to react with immediacy, rather than act out turgid demonstrations of honor, loyalty, responsibility, morality, and all of the other vague idea-free quasi-themes floating through Gay's word processor. Basically, the more We Own the Night feels like a B-movie, the more authentic it seems.