Howard Hawks said that a good film has three great scenes and no bad ones. We Own The Night argues otherwise. A brilliantly directed car chase, a drug deal gone wrong, and a great finale provide delicious icing on a poorly baked cake, and no scenes are outright bad, but the film as a whole is so half-there and cliché-ridden that these great scenes alone can’t redeem the poor script.
Like James Gray’s previous films, We Own The Night takes place in the Russian-Jewish Brighton Beach neighborhood and concerns itself heavily with crime and family. The Grusinsky family, headed by NYPD Deputy Police Chief Burt (Robert Duvall) is supposed to go into law enforcement, and although Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) has followed tradition, his brother Robert (Joaquin Phoenix) has changed his surname to Greene and heads a night club in which Russian drug-lord Vadim (Alex Veadov) conducts business.
You know where it goes from there. Bobby reluctantly finds himself as an informant, things go wrong, people die, and good prevails. The only cliché you won’t see is someone throwing their badge into the Hudson when everything is complete. On the contrary, We Own The Night’s twist is that the drug war accumulates mental and emotional scars on each of the brothers, and there is a tug between who Bobby is and who he is forced to be. Still, everything from the hot Latina girlfriend (Eva Mendes, whose character is so flat she barely even gets a name) who sits around looking somewhat concerned to the “how did you know [important piece of information character accidentally let slip]” are staples of We Own The Night.
In other words, it aims for The Godfather, even feeling like an epic at times, but poorly sketched characters and a lack of originality make it fall short. Indeed, the film, despite beginning in 1988, is stylized after the 1970s New Hollywood crime dramas of Coppola, Scorsese, and Lumet. Still, to call what Gray does visually “admirable” might be selling it short. There are more than a few great sets, from Bobby’s nightclub to the site of a drug deal that turns into a shoot-out and the beautifully detailed, police station, and of all the high-octane car chases put onto film, it’s hard to think of one more thrilling, claustrophobic, or transporting than this one. Gray keeps you inside Bobby’s car and calls upon fast edits and nervous dialogue that make the scene appropriately confusing and indicative of Bobby’s uncertainty—suddenly forced to drive, should he be trying to escape or chase the assassin’s car and save lives? Similarly, Gray’s lighting provides atmosphere and tone throughout, bathing his characters in expressionistic yellow lighting, and regular overhead shots suggest that, above all, we are observers, watching Bobby’s life slowly be led astray, as Bobby himself no doubt must feel at times. Gray’s shot choices and the mood of his images serve as our guide through the film, although that only makes the poorly drawn characters a larger detriment.
Gray does, however, go overboard with his use of sound at times. Although the aforementioned car crash and drug deal use sound (and in the latter case, the lack of it) to wonderful effect, there are more than a few scenes where background noise, an integral part of the world-building of which Gray’s sets display a deep understanding, overpowers the dialogue. This is not helped by Joaquin Phoenix’s uncharacteristically poor performance, in which he mumbles through so many of his lines and slurs so many words that no number of rewinds will provide any clarity. While Wahlberg and Duvall are occasionally overpowered, understanding Phoenix’s lines is the most challenging part of We Own The Night, and that should never be true in a film that puts so much effort into world-building.
Through all the directorial vitures, the question “to what end?” lingers in my mind. For such a humorless, story-driven film, it’s difficult to say what Gray is trying to say about family, and the characters aren’t complex enough to attach any larger themes to their shift. It’s often a beautiful film, but it’s never a new one.