We Own the Night
How often have we seen a car chase in a cop thriller? It's a mark of the artistry in James Gray's austere, powerhouse drama that he finds a new way to film this generic staple. The camera basically stays with Joaquin Phoenix as all hell breaks out around him: a car pulls up alongside, there's gunfire, broken glass, confusion; has his girlfriend been hit? What about the car in front, carrying his father? Vision is impaired by a heavy rain-storm and the dominant sound is the thud of the windscreen wipers. Panic, helplessness, confusion, this is the sharp end.
It's a great set-piece, but it's only one of three equally exciting and audacious sequences. Better yet, each is absolutely integral to the development of the story and the revelation of character. Taken together, they move We Own The Night into the highest caliber of thriller - it's a more sustained and probing film, in my book, than either Eastern Promises or Michael Clayton.
Phoenix is the prodigal son - a nightclub manager in New York City in the late 80s - who returns home to the fold, eventually earning the respect of his father and his brother - both of them detectives in the NYPD. This redemption is hard won, accomplished through suffering and personal sacrifice, and at the end we find ourselves pondering how much this sympathetic, strangely innocent soul has lost in the process.
When the movie begins, "Bobby Green" has already carved out an identity for himself. He's the main man at the el Caribe, a thriving hotspot bankrolled by a gregarious Russian businessman who treats him like a son. His loyal lieutenant is also his best friend. And he's crazy in love with his hot Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). Everything is on the up.
The Grusinskys are a different tribe: Burt (Robert Duvall) is a veteran cop who can't stomach what his younger son is doing with his life. Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), the elder, is the white sheep, quickly rising through the ranks and newly assigned to lead a narcotics task force that has one of Bobby's regular customers in its sights. When Joseph is hospitalized, fortunate to have survived a point-blank shooting, Bobby realizes his old man will be targeted next and agrees to infiltrate the drugs operation. The bad guys haven't guessed that Green and Grusinsky are family.
Now, you don't have to be a pop-savvy Taranteenie to recognize that Gray's story might have made a serviceable vehicle for the likes of James Cagney and Spencer Tracy back in the 1930s. If you think you can guess where it's headed, you're very probably right. (And if you object that it seems far-fetched, I wouldn't disagree with you there either.) But Gray takes these somewhat soiled and contrived narrative elements and shapes them into a plangent suspense thriller that's archetypal, inexorable, and subtly subversive.
Phoenix starred with Wahlberg in Gray's "The Yards" some years back, and watching him in these pictures you appreciate what a great film noir actor he would have made. There's something wounded about him, a vulnerability that's attractive but can also turn rancid. He knows something integral is broken but he desperately needs to be fixed. Eva Mendes makes a strong case that Amada is the answer to his dreams (anyone's dreams, for that matter); she's tender, sexy and assertive, ready to fight his corner if only he'll stick beside her. But in the end blood begets blood: you can't choose your family or escape from where you came from. There will be a closing of the ranks.
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