We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)
James Gray's We Own the Night is so deceivingly simple that it is very easy to dismiss it, which is what most of the mainstream critics who have seen it did (the film got scathing disapprovals in Cannes where it held its premiere). Those who approved of the film liked it, but didn't like it enough to round up a resounding admiration for the film. There are a few, now including me, who thinks its a tremendous film, a triumphant feature for Gray (his third film, previous efforts include Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000), in more than a dozen years) and probably one of the year's best.
Gray greets us with a photo montage set into motion by a very laidback yet alluring jazz score. Against the rippling chords performed by the virtuosic trumpet, sepia-toned photographs of New York's police are displayed: a discreetly placed revolver, a violent arrest, money and drugs seized, and a proudly displayed cop badge, beaming with its elusive yet very real power, truly seductive.
The next scene is even sexier: Amada (a dazzling Eva Mendes who surprises with her ability to play such a very strong female in what essentially is a guy flick) lying in a couch, her body partially covered by a few pillows and a revealing outfit, and her fingers on her crotch, subliminally inviting her boyfriend Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix, who is always good) to dig in, which he does. He foreplays with her for a bit before he is called to his work. Bobby is living the life as manager of the El Caribe, an infamous haven for the nightstalkers of the eighties and the Russian drug mob. It turns out that he's son to the police chief (Robert Duvall as Burt Grusinsky) and brother to a newly appointed captain (Mark Wahlberg as Joseph Grusinsky); his true identity is unknown to his shadier friends as he has long abandoned his paternal family name, Grusinsky to adopt his mother's maiden name, Green, a common last name that would erase any possibility of tracking down his pedigree. It would be logical for him to follow the path laid to him by his family and enjoy the jazzy allure of cop life, but between that and Amada's crotch accompanied by that fascinating life within the fringes between the law and the underground, he chooses the more enticing of the two, obviously the latter.
We Own the Night, its title derived from the New York police's slogan during the eighties, is set during the height of the police's ongoing war against illegal drug trade. Gray's gritty period piece, complete with anti-gravity hairdos for the ladies and loose nightclubbing outfits for the guys backgrounded by leftover disco hits from the late seventies and the early eighties, is faulted for its screenplay written also by Gray, an ordinary cop tale supposedly mired by inconsistencies, implausibilities and contrivances. I don't buy it. Gray's script harkens to a Hollywood that believes in classic stories of men, oft-repeated but never replicated, where the inherent psychological and moral turmoils overtake the purported importance of originality and realism. In the middle of the bigger backdrop of cops chasing drug dealers is a soothing and subtle emotional parable of two brothers, long divided by separate paternal figures (Bobby has ever since adopted his Russian club owner as surrogate father) and a gargantuan difference in their worlds (in one sequence during Joseph's promotion, Bobby enters the function hall, lackluster compared to the dance halls of the El Caribe; the enormity of their separation is evidenced by that sequence's final moments when Joseph gives out a speech on his comrades' heroics, and Bobby and Amada walk through the darkened staircase, and drowns the speech with a torrid kissing session).
Fate, or that force that would stretch New York's moral spectrum (the worsening drug trade which starts to use the clubs as starting points for their operation, pinning Bobby in the middle) is thinning the fringes that separate the law and the underworld, making it impossible for Bobby to remain satisfied in the middle. This would force the brothers closer.
Gray's screenplay commends that inherent familial duty, that blood bond that has kept Russian emigres consolidated whether they are on either side of the moral spectrum, as the impetus for Bobby's rapid change; as can be seen when his brother becomes the target of the Russian mob causing him to blur the once-permanent lines that allow him a semblance of comfort and stability or when his father sacrifices himself to save him (in a masterful car sequence; dutifully edited with the sound of the swiped sweeping off the rain from the windshield as pulse to the fluidly directed car chase), dictating him to abandon the gray zone, he is far too in it (the gray zone can no longer provide the safety and comfort it once so easily provides, he either has to be a sitting duck or an active participant) too remain in the middle, and as his father predicted before, he would have to choose whether he is with them or with the law. Amada, a figurehead of the past but is also very human and stays on with Bobby not for anything else but for that sheer hope that love can pull them out of their present rut, is also faced with that choice, to either push through or separate.
Gray paints the picture so boldly with several instances of blatant masterstrokes (the car chase in the rain, the shootout in the coke house, the final showdown in the grassy fields), probably confusing people to consider such hurried decisions as plot contrivances rather than complex psychological touches; but there are compelling bases, these are as irresistible and uncontrollable as the grooves of destiny and familial ties. We Own the Night is a brilliant piece of work, perfectly controlled and defiantly against popular notions of how cinema should move and feel. Despite its somewhat rebellious tone, it flaunts a classic scenario so dauntlessly and effortlessly told its hard to deny that it's good, really good.