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James Gray's We Own the Night is, most of all, a very worthy successor to The Yards, Mr Gray's film of 2000. Both films star, and pit against one another through sticky bonds of profound loyalty, characters played by Mark Wahlberg (here, Joseph Grusinsky) and Joaquin Phoenix (Bobby Green). In the earlier picture, they were best friends pulled apart by circumstances; here, they are brothers (despite the different surnames) whom circumstances push closer together. The signal difference between the two pictures is the focus upon the two men. The Yards had a big, juicy part for the then-new actress, Charlize Theron, with great supporting roles for Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway. We Own the Night has only one female lead, Eva Mendes's more or less subdued Amada Juarez, Bobby's girlfriend. In the senior role, James Caan's crooked contractor, Frank Olchin, has been replaced by Robert Duvall's sterling police chief, Burt Grusinsky. We Own the Night has a lot more room for genuine bad guys, Russian mobsters headed by Alex Veadov's Vadim Nezhinski. Mr Veadov has the tight, controlled stare of a complete sociopath; the only other actor whom I can think of who's capable of such intelligent evil is Armand Assante.
There is nothing operatic about Mr Gray's film style. He's not one for setting up a scene so that it can be savored; the pleasure of his movies must be gleaned from a worldview that is nasty, brutish, and abruptly terminable. But the early tension of his drama is very close to that of Giuseppe Verdi's masterpieces. Divided loyalty and mistaken identity put his characters in some very tough spots. In We Own the Night, which takes its name from the street-crimes unit of the New York Police Department, the pressure is on Bobby Green. Bobby enjoys the sybaritic life of managing a popular Brooklyn nightclub for a gentle, elderly Russian man (Moni Moshonov) whom he treats as a father. This job involves nothing more serious than occasionally winking at criminal transactions in the corners of the club; Bobby himself is as clean as his boss seems to be. He has taken his mother's maiden name in order to distance himself from his real father, Burt Grusinsky, and his brother, Joseph. The rivalry of the brothers is moderated, if that's the word, by icy mutual contempt; Burt is more forgiving. Bobby has been encouraged to bring his girlfriend to meet the family at a church-basement supper. Amada is a hot Puerto Rican girl who genuinely seeks, but can't quite obtain, the family's approval. She's not necessarily enamored of Bobby's glamorous night life, but she's turned off by his baggage once she sees it, and pretty much stops smiling for the rest of the picture. With Verdian economy, Mr Gray puts the supper scene to a second, more important use: Joseph wants Bobby to know that a major Russian mobster has been identified as a patron of Bobby's club, and Joseph would like Bobby's help nailing the guy. Bobby, whose boss has no idea of his police connections, demurs. You can pick your opera, from Ernani to Aida, for similarly adamantine refusals.
But where Verdi would have one or both brothers bringing the other's life to an end, Mr Gray has salvation in mind, and this is achieved by means of a course of tiny steps - gestures, mostly - that Bobby takes toward rapprochement with his brother. The plot, which I'll refrain from summarizing, is sufficiently suspenseful to sustain the kind of persistent discomfort without which, perversely one might think, films such as We Own the Night fall flat. But the suspense lurks in the background, like a sudden and unexpected practical joke. While we wait for the door to pop open and the skeleton to bellow "Boo!" (an outcome that would be rather more pleasant than what actually happens here), we watch the male principals negotiate a series of large and small transactions or contracts. They come to understandings, usually limited but occasionally broad, and what clearly interests Mr Gray is the look of these negotiations. How do very tough men, good or bad, policemen or mobsters, saddled with a mistrust of any language that isn't the feudal boilerplate of brotherhood, fidelity, and familial piety, actually communicate? In a word, minimally. But the minimalism at the center of Mr Gray's attention is very challenging to sit through. It wears down any detachment that the viewer might entertain at the outset. There comes a point when, watching two to four men sitting around a table in a drab room, one has to wonder (especially if one is a man) how long one could manage to survive among these people - measured in minutes. Mr Gray doesn't bring the viewer into the picture by inviting an identification with Bobby or Joseph. On the contrary, one shares their anxiety because they make the viewer so nervous.
Fans of "big" movies such as The Departed or ultra-creepy pictures such as Running Scared will probably be underwhelmed by We Own the Night, but, for my money, Mr Gray's film is the real deal, because the psychological thrust of every moment is given powerful but restrained physical expression. There are outbursts aplenty, but what's interesting are the cooling-off moments that follow them. Mr Gray's men don't have the luxury of permanent enmity - not unless they plan to kill one another. And once they do plan to kill one another, psychology and emotion go out the window, replaced by the coldest calculation. Few movies are as bold about presenting such a grisly milieu without the slightest romanticization. We Own the Night will not, if you are a healthy moviegoer, excite your voyeuristic impulses. Long before the movie is over, you'll be glad that you went into chartered accounting or library science. But you won't want We Own the Night to end a moment sooner than it does. (October 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press