So many things about the film are good and worth watching; the problem is they are scattered throughout a film with a weak plot that develops way too easily.
Few things are as disappointing or frustrating as anticipating a movie for a long period of time only to be let down when you finally see it. We Own the Night, written and directed by James Gray, has been at the top of my list of films to see since it premiered at Cannes this year. While the film has plenty of elements that are well done and exciting, the film itself is not nearly as good as the individual components.
The film is set in Brooklyn in 1988, where Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is the very successful manager of the El Caribe nightclub. Bobby’s brother, Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), has just been promoted to Captain of the police force, following in the footsteps of his father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), who is the Chief of Police. Bobby has done everything he can to separate himself from his brother and dad, including using his mother’s maiden name and not telling any of his close friends that he is the only one in his family who isn’t a cop. The only person who knows about his family is his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes), who works with him at the club.
As a part of his promotion, Joseph has been put in charge of cracking down on the Russian drug trade—led by Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov)—which has overtaken Brooklyn. Bobby’s club, Joseph believes, is where Nezhinski is meeting his contacts and making his deals. He asks Bobby to keep an ear out for any deals being made in his club, which Bobby is less than enthusiastic to do and leads to more than just eavesdropping on customers.
The performances by Phoenix and Wahlberg are rich and exciting to watch. Phoenix especially dominates in his performance as a man who is too insecure and too immature to face life. He has lived in his brother’s shadow for most of his life and has become apathetic to anyone and anything that doesn’t affect him. Gray has perfectly crafted the relationship that has evolved between the brothers. The way they talk to each other, push each other’s buttons and look at one another perfectly captures how blood can be complicated by masculine pride.
Gray’s script is relatively solid. The dialogue is real and unforced, but the story develops too slowly and has too many moments of "Well, that was convenient," or "Shouldn’t that have been more difficult?" Not that We Own the Night needs to be packed full of shootouts and car chases, but it seems as if Gray was trying to avoid action of any kind. Gray’s casting also leaves something to be desired. Why Duvall is in the movie is a mystery; he looked annoyed to even be there, giving his character little more than a gruff voice and a pissed off look.
So many things about the film are good and worth watching; the problem is they are scattered throughout a film with a weak plot that develops way too easily. Gray does give the brothers and their world plenty of layers. Bobby works at a club called El Caribe which, in Spanish, means "the Caribbean," intimating that he is already in paradise and shouldn’t mess up the good thing he has going. Bobby also takes on the last name "Green," which may signify the virgin eyes through which he views the world or the inexperience he brings when working with the police.
The movie opens with a montage of photographs from police busts and arrests from a bygone era. One officer’s shield refers to a special crimes unit of the department and reads "We own the night." At the end of this film with few true redemptions, it’s hard to say whether owning the night is a blessing or a curse, and whether it is worth it considering the sacrifices that have to be made. | Matthew F. Newlin