There are obvious similarities between James Gray’s third film We Own the Night and his first two features Little Odessa and The Yards, and they’re mostly positive points. All three are New York crime dramas that focus on families straddling the moral wires of right and wrong, all have strong supporting characters, and all have a good handful of unique and intense action scenes. Considered side-by-side We Own the Night might be the “glossiest” of the three, lacking some of the grit of Odessa and Yards but also lacking some of the exciting virility Gray brought to those films. Still, the result is a more-than-passable NYC crime story.
The premise is highly familiar, and that alone may relegate Night to the rung below the likes of the arrestingly deviant Little Odessa. Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play Bobby and Joey, brothers on opposite sides of the law, the former owner of a seedy drug-fueled nightclub and the latter a golden boy NYPD officer. The events that bring them together aren’t altogether unfamiliar either. The big bad Russian drug dealer Vadim frequents Bobby’s place, so Joey (for some strange reason) believes his estranged brother to be the only person in the entire packed nightclub who can inform on him. Vadim (for some strange reason) suddenly puts an inordinate amount of trust in Bobby, letting him in on a secret to which only his most trusted henchmen are privy. If this all sounds disappointingly typical for an opposite-sides-of-the-law drama, that’s because it is.
At worst, the clichés extend past the premise and permeate the script itself — swaths of dialogue are worthy of some eye-rolling, as are entire scenes meant to play as quieter, emotional moments. Eva Mendes, though beautiful and not at all a poorly-written character in the grand scheme of Night, bears the brunt of the iffy writing. She occasionally whines about Bobby not including her, about Bobby putting himself in danger, about other things that only serve to make her less interesting than she starts out to be. She actually utters phrases like “I feel like the walls are closing in”. Gray’s writing usually avoids this kind of clichéd and obvious stuff, but there are more than a few facepalmable moments here (and yes, we’re using facepalmable in a tirade about “good writing”).
At best, though, We Own the Night is full of Gray’s trademark beauty when it comes to action sequences and more subtle moments of intensity. The rainsoaked drive-by shooting scene is unbelievable, and likely unparalleled until 2012’s Killing Them Softly deployed a strikingly similar scene (albeit in slow motion). An earlier shooting, one that ends up haunting Wahlberg’s Joey, is equally haunting throughout the remainder of the narrative. And the aforestated “emotional scenes” possibly fall flat because of the numerous occasions on which Gray and Co. manage to mine great depth of feeling out of moments with no dialogue at all. One scene in particular takes place during a moment of silence for a fallen NYPD brother — as the policemen noiselessly pay their respects Bobby passionately makes out with his girlfriend in a nearby stairwell, and the entire scene is presided over by the deafening tolling of a clock striking midnight. That ten-second scene is more emotional than all of the halfhearted banter populating the rest of the film.
And Gray’s visual staging thus remains a force to be reckoned with. At times, the convenience of certain plot devices actually makes way for what would otherwise be a missed opportunity. Vadim flees a police raid at the end of the film and takes refuge in a dry marshland of tall reeds, and the agreed-upon procedure is to “smoke him out”. It sounds cool, of course, and sounds logical at first, but then there’s no possible way the cops could have surrounded the marsh before Vadim popped out the other end. There’s also no way that tossing a dozen lit flares into a veritable forest of reeds is a good idea. But as Bobby defiantly strides into the smoky marsh, the distant voices of the NYPD fading as he fades into the clouds, the phantomlike Vadim lurking somewhere within — well, that beautiful scene just wouldn’t be possible if the cops were a little more environmentally conscious.
Watching Gray’s early work in chronological order might cause you to think “gee, it’d be nice if the guy branched out a little from New York crime drama”. Indeed he did, and continues to, following Night with Two Lovers, The Immigrant, an episode of The Red Road and the upcoming adventure film The Lost City of Z. But his New York crime stuff is largely magnificent, especially considering how much “New York crime stuff” exists that is decidedly unmagnificent, and We Own the Night should definitely count itself amongst the former category.