We Own the Night (2007) dir. James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes
“We Own the Night” was a headscratcher release from last year. It received a prestigious selection for competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – a rarity for an American genre film. Yet, in the Fall, James Gray’s film was buried in a brief theatrical release only to make back a pittance and quickly disappear at the box office. It’s a shame because, though it’s not “The Departed”, it’s a quality American crime film.
The film opens in a well-staged scene in a Brooklyn nightclub. The blaring Blondie music signals it’s the 80’s, when NYC was the crime capital of the country. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) manages the club, which is inhabited by the usual clubbers but also a ring of dangerous Russian gangsters. But Bobby comes from a family of cops – his brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg) is a ball-busting captain who comes into conflict over Bobby’s mob connections, and his father Bert (Robert Duvall) is a well-respected recent retiree from the force.
When Joe is attacked and almost killed by the Russians Bobby’s struggles with his allegiances. Bobby becomes an informant and goes undercover to take down the mob fulfilling his rightful place in his family.
“We Own the Night” feels like a good ol’ Sidney Lumet film – like “Prince of the City” or “Serpico”. Character reigns over plot and action. As well, I found similarities in the themes in “The Godfather”. “We Are the Night” is a film about family and the obstacles that divide them. Michael Corleone begins “The Godfather” as an innocent kid who eschews the gangster lifestyle of his family while Bobby Green rejects the family of cops that he was born into. It’s when tragedy strikes both families that they finally realize their true paths in life. Like the famous shooting of Vito Corleone, it’s Bobby’s brother Joe who is shot down, which allows Bobby to reconcile his differences with his family.
In the special features making of featurette, writer/director Gray says filmmaking is part truth, but also part spectacle. Everything about Bobby’s transition makes for truthful drama, especially with three fine actors playing the roles (Phoenix, Wahlberg, Duvall). What’s missing unfortunately is the ‘spectacle’ of “The Godfather”, or say, “The Departed.” The second half contains two set pieces of action and suspense (including a unique car chase in the rain), but there is no emotional climax which is needed to elevate the film to become one of the great crime films it aspires to be. After Bobby turns to become an informant, his character arc is essentially completed. There’s a minor reveal at the end about one of his close friends in the gangster world, but it doesn’t achieve the substantial drama we saw in the first half of the film. As a result, the film becomes more “Copland” than “The Departed”.
But considering the quick exit from the box office last year this film needs to find an audience on DVD. James Gray is a fine filmmaker, and it has been 7 years since his last film. This is a shame. Enjoy.
“We Own the Night” is available on DVD Feb 12 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.