Family Plot

Salt Lake City Weekly | October 8, 2007
If you’re a critic—or any kind of serious movie-lover—you should embrace the idea of what James Gray tries to do. His two previous features—1995’s Little Odessa and 2000’s The Yards—both found a distinctive New York setting for gritty, character-based dramas about loyalty and moral choices. They were blue-collar, working-class sorts of movies: You’ve got a job to do, you do it, and you don’t worry about making it look pretty.

The problem is that while we might embrace that idea, it feels at times as though Gray himself is only embracing the idea as well. His latest effort, We Own the Night, finds Gray once again creating a compelling situation, but finding himself confused about how to deal with the people in that situation as more than abstract plot necessities.

Set in 1988 Brooklyn—for no apparent reason other than the opportunity to have Ed Koch do a cameo as his mayoral-era self—the story follows nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix). The black sheep in a multi-generation family of New York cops, Bobby is content to separate himself from the Grusinsky clan enough that he uses his mother’s maiden name. But when his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is shot in connection with his narcotics investigation of a Russian gangster named Vadim (Alex Veadov) who frequents his club, Bobby allows himself to become an insider informant for the police department, risking himself and his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) in the process.

Gray sets up the kind of fundamental character tensions that should drive any effective drama with a kind of ruthless efficiency. We see Bobby’s relationships with Amada and his club’s Russian owner, Marat (Moni Moshonov), as surrogate family connections to replace the ones with Joseph his own hard-nosed cop dad (Robert Duvall). We get scenes demonstrating the friction between Bobby and Joseph over their respective life choices. And we watch Bobby shift his allegiances back to his biological family, potentially alienating Amada in the process.

This no-frills approach to storytelling carries over to some of his set pieces, which crackle with an intensity you’d love to see in every action film. In one terrific sequence, Bobby visits Vadim’s drug operation while carrying a wire, his anxiety gradually increasing Vadim’s suspicions that something is up. Later, Vadim’s men ambush a police convoy during a driving rain storm, Bobby’s sheer terror echoed in the driving heartbeat sound of windshield wipers. If you’re not perched on the edge of your seat, your adrenal gland has been surgically removed.

But We Own the Night somehow never carries that intensity over into characters that live and breathe. Phoenix has evolved into a talented actor, and he does a lot with Bobby’s own evolution. The rest of characters, though, feel like little more than place-holders for where Gray wants to take the story. He mistakes terse, laconic or trite dialogue for the way “real people” talk, instead failing to give them enough distinctive personality. It’s hard to find anything particularly profound in a story when its primary subtext is spelled out in Duvall’s pronouncement to Bobby that “sooner or later, either you’re gonna be with us, or with the drug dealers.”

And it’s not just the characters that don’t get a chance to breathe. The entire story feels like a three-hour epic squeezed into two hours, Bobby’s character arc in particular blasting along at a pace that makes it hard to understand how the guy we saw in the first scene is even vaguely related to the one we see in the last scene. Gray builds something with all the trappings of a character piece, but it’s really as relentless a plot machine as a lot of summer popcorn fare—only it carries itself as though it’s somehow more profound. We Own the Night feels technically accomplished yet emotionally stunted. There’s a word for that kind of filmmaking, no matter how many Oscar-nominated actors are reading the lines: workmanlike.


**1/2 (two and a half out of four stars)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall.

Written and directed by James Gray

Rated R.

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