We Own the Night
Director: James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes
Walking out of a screening that was not quite half full, the young “lucky winners” who pad out the press audience were mumbling. “It was okay,” the girl with the little nose stud said. “for a free movie.” “Yeah,” the other girl with the little nose stud said, shrugging. “I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it.”
That bubblegum-snapping assessment pretty much sums up James Gray‘s third movie, We Own the Night. There’s a lot of good stuff going on here, but it never quite gels. We see what Joaquin Phoenix is going through, we get why it’s important, what the stakes are, but the film merely unfolds quietly in front of us, never really grabbing our throats and making us feel the anger, despair, guilt and fear that the ever-brooding, possibly stoned Phoenix is almost certainly going through.
The story: Two brothers, one—Marky Mark Wahlberg—is the Good Son, a rising star of the NYPD who is the great pleasure of his father (Robert Duvall), chief of the department. The other, Phoenix, is a nightclub manager with a hot girlfriend, a drug habit somewhere between casual and aggressive, and a stark indifference to anything but himself. Phoenix hasn’t even told anyone that he’s related to these cops (he uses his late mother’s maiden name). When a very creepy Russian drug dealer working out of his club targets Phoenix’s family, Phoenix is drawn to the good side of the fight, driven by revenge and love of family that he’d never acknowledged.
For no discernible reason, the film is set in 1988. This does allow two brief appearances by the mayor of New York City, played by actual eighties NYC mayor Ed Koch. Otherwise, I don’t get it. It may matter in the logic of what was going on in the New York drug scene, but the vast majority of viewers won’t know that. Whatever.
Gray wrote and directed this film (his second to star Phoenix and Wahlberg), and he shows strength and weakness in both roles. His camerawork is assured, his storytelling is clear and engaging. There’s refinement in his choices that is never showy or arty. Yet we’re never completely drawn into the story. Gray doesn’t pander with steroid-driven cliches, and the price of that may be that it’s harder to get our hearts pumping the way a thriller would if you don’t press all the buttons Hollywood has been hardwiring into us for decades.
His writing zigs off the usual trajectories, with a number of Action Thriller Moments teased and yanked away. Yet at the same time, there are often moments of dialogue that seem insanely predictable, annoyingly trite. When Phoenix’ unwillingness to help his family is followed by one of them being attacked by the Russian’s men, Joaquin laments, “They tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen.” His girlfriend says, “Oh God, Bobby, what’re we gonna do?” And the scene fades out as though we’re meant to have felt some particularly weighty impact. Later, Mendes and Phoenix fight about a decision he’s made, driven by family duty. “I have to do this,” he shouts. “I have to do this! I have to!” And then he walks into the next room, poses in the doorway with his back to us, and pushes the door closed. Aaaand … scene!
Though you wish someone would’ve edited out these plausible but too-familiar little moments, larger choices to leave the beaten path make the film feel more substantial. When Phoenix’s first shot at taking down the bad guys fails, he ends up in witness protection, with Mendes, who never asked to be part of a Russian mob vendetta. When we see Phoenix and Mendes after months in hiding, under armed guard, dealing with the tension of that moment and the tension in Phoenix’s family, it feels very real.
It helps that there are very good actors here (though Phoenix is just a sulky brick, and seems like someone you’d hate to be in the room with in real life), and Mendes is a special surprise. In sillier films she has not exactly shone. She was functional (but sexy) in a bit part in Once Upon a Time in Mexico; she was wooden (but, um, well made-up?) in the amazingly sucky Ghost Rider. Give her a decent part and a director who clearly has a feel for good actors, and she’s the most interesting thing in the movie. I’d rather have followed the impact of the story on her. Also, the unknowns playing the Russian club owner and the Russian drug dealer were fantastic. Gray casts his film really well, and you can see frequent flashes of inspired talent. It’s just that, in the final execution, he doesn’t ratchet up the tension, despite some really well-done sequences (that car chase, a descent into a drug warehouse, and a rural drug deal that goes south). And for all Gray’s feints from predictability, the final scene is definitely a zag back to the macho inanity of the action film, albeit in a lower-key way that fits better with the film. And makes for a tidier ending, though it clearly left the audience flat.
We Own the Night is defintely more than competent. But not much more.