06 March 2009

We Own the Night

Written & Directed by James Gray
Full credits from IMDb

Within the first 20 minutes of We Own the Night, an artful, strong-arming genre picture, writer-director Gray introduces a copious number of contrasts: nightclubs and church basements, Puerto Ricans and Russians, Blondie and Louis Prima, weedheads and drunks, and—above all others—dealers and cops. Efficient and deceptively potboiled, the movie turns on an old narrative archetype, a contrast as old as God and the Devil: the good brother and the bad brother, seen as long ago as, uh, The Bible (Cain v. Abel) and as recently as Slumdog Millionaire.

Here, the good brother is Mark Wahlberg, an upstanding police captain who obeyingly followed in the footsteps of patriarch Robert Duvall, assistant police chief. The thrillingly talented Joaquin Phoenix plays the black sheep sibling, a prodigal nightclub manager who has forsaken the law-and-order respectability of his family for more Bacchanal pursuits—which include the voluptuous Eva Mendes, so who can blame him? (Phoenix is so alienated from his family that he has taken to using his dead mother’s maiden name, Green—i.e. a color, beginning with “GR” no less, which makes him a likely, if fantasized, stand-in for the director.) Set in 1988 in the Coney-Brighton sections of Brooklyn, We Own the Night features a city falling apart (says Wahlberg) on the brink of war (says Duvall) between the police and the dope peddlers. Phoenix is caught in the middle, with connections to both but complicity in neither. The war quickly arrives in a third reel act of violence, forcing side-choosing that transforms Phoenix from playful to brooding, reducing him from insouciant night owl to morose, mumbling informant.

There’s nothing very fresh about We Own the Night on paper. An elemental clash between Good and Evil, it deals in black-and-white morality, going so far as to posit joining The Force as a religious calling, requiring the renunciation of women and all. (But, but…Eva!) Gray, though, has a knack for taking old hats and haberdashing new brims. (?) Deftly paced and plotted, it’s a B-movie impeccably executed with a style no less than Kubrickian, from graceful dissolves to elegantly lighted frames—creamy hotel- and apartment-interiors; amber, lamplit discotheques. Though it stumbles some in its second hour, We Own the Night is underpinned by a handful of masterful, violent set-pieces: a mid-film visit to a drug den, steeped in nearly unbearable suspense; a car chase and gun battle through the streets of Queens in cats-and-dogs rain; and a manhunt through conflagrant reeds in Floyd Bennett Field. (Gray has a true New Yorker’s sense of the city, setting his films in off-the-tourist-path locations, outerboroughs and all.) If every mainstream movie had such a skillful hand behind it, we wouldn’t so often have to draw a contrast of our own, between the good and the shamelessly commercial. Grade: A-

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