We Own the Night Movie Review

James Gray has assembled what looks and sounds like a good, smart thriller with We Own the Night: a strong cast, serious aspirations, a specific time and place (Brooklyn, 1988). The story is shopworn, but not without dramatic potential: Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play brothers on the opposite-ish sides of the law; Joseph (Wahlberg) has followed in the footsteps of their father (Robert Duvall) and joined the NYPD while Bobby (Phoenix) rebels by running a seedy nightclub. With a drug dealer inching into Bobby's territory, he's forced to reconsider his loyalties.

Meanwhile, the movie forces me to reconsider my own, because it spends a lot more time seeming like a good movie than actually being one. For a film with such an ominous, encompassing title, We Own the Night is content to skim the surface of the NYPD, lacking the obsessive attention to detail that distinguishes other crime-heavy glimpses into bygone American eras as diverse as Gangs of New York, Zodiac, or The Assassination of the Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even Night's period details feel half-assed and incidental, like background songs that sound more like bits of '90s soundtracks to '80s-set movies instead of 1988 itself. In fact, though an early subtitle says so, the year doesn't even seem to be 1988 in particular but a vague, amorphous "eighties," Wedding Singer style.

Though the marketing campaign suggests a Departed-style face-off, the film is really less about the Wahlberg character than Phoenix's Bobby and his journey from family black sheep to, well, I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise or, more likely, the faint sense of disappointment chased with a hint of disbelief. After discounting the misleading ads, Wahlberg still has surprisingly little to do; even as a supporting player, he's one-note (and it's a note that, fair or not, compares unfavorably with the one he hit so perfectly in The Departed).

It's not Wahlberg's fault; his Joseph is only the most extreme example in a cast of characters whose relationships are defined immediately and simplistically. This leaves little to say about the performances, though everyone here seems to be giving it their best -- particularly Eva Mendes, whose gravitas varies dramatically from movie to movie but provides more warmth than any of the creaky family conflict. The star of We Own the Night is the writing, in the sense that the star of a flood is water.

Sometimes you pay a compliment to a particular scene by saying that it tells you in 30 seconds everything you need to know about a character or group of characters. Writer-director James Gray does accomplishes this in half the time... but many times the length, if you know what I mean. Phoenix, Wahlberg, and Duvall are talented men, but their early scenes together proceed with numbing predictability: Phoenix will act dismissive and cynical; Duvall and Wahlberg will be the humorless, uptight law-abiders.

Even Bobby, supposedly one of the more dynamic and shaded people onscreen, comes off as different shades of dull, because no matter how much plot and anguish Gray lathers on, the material doesn't come alive. It moves forward, certainly; the film isn't exactly boring. But nor does much of it feel necessary; it could be the same movie at 15 or 200 minutes as it is at a 120.

It's a shame, because Gray isn't a bad director. We Own the Night has a couple of set pieces -- a character's trip into a drug den while wearing a wire, a caravan of cop cars ambushed in the rain -- that could've easily fallen flat either from familiarity or slick stylization attempting to compensate for the same. Instead, Gray handles them with unexpected, almost quiet creepiness; they're easily the most memorable bits of the film. Maybe that's because they get everyone to shut up -- the visceral action forces characters to react with immediacy, rather than act out turgid demonstrations of honor, loyalty, responsibility, morality, and all of the other vague idea-free quasi-themes floating through Gay's word processor. Basically, the more We Own the Night feels like a B-movie, the more authentic it seems.

But the night belongs to lovers.

Comments

We Own the Night Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2007

Advertisement

More Joaquin Phoenix

'Doctor Strange' (with Joaquin Phoenix?) To Shoot at Pinewood for 2016 Release

Doctor Strange, Marvel's next big project which is likely to star Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, will shoot at Pinewood Studios with a release...

'Maps to the Stars' For NY Film Festival, But It's All About 'Foxcatcher'

David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars is one of the more eye-catching movies announced for the 52nd New York Film Festival though the drama starring...

Man Arrested After Invading Woody Allen Movie Set In Providence

And in random mid week news, a man has been arrested after allegedly causing trouble on the set of Woody Allen’s new movie. Allen is...

Ladies and Gentleman, Joaquin Phoenix is your 'Doctor Strange'

Joaquin Phoenix, the Oscar nominee often tipped as one of the world's greatest actors following stellar turns in Gladiator, The Master, and Her, is in...

Advertisement

Could Joaquin Phoenix Be Marvel's Doctor Strange?

Variety reports that Joaquin Phoenix, star of Her and Walk the Line, is in early talks to take on the mantel of Marvel's latest superhero...

With Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Allen's New Movie Could Fly

Emma Stone has joined Joaquin Phoenix in the cast for Woody Allen's next movie. The currently untitled project will be written, produced and directed by...

'The Immigrant' Has Oscars Written All Over It [Trailer + Pictures]

The temptation to predict Oscar winners in April is one that should be avoided, but equally one that is difficult to resist. One look at...

The Immigrant Trailer

Ewa Cybulski and her sister Magda are Polish immigrants in search of new lives in the prosperous New York City. However, no sooner have they...

Advertisement