Writer-director James Gray’s We Own the Night gives startling, vibrant life to a story that is nonetheless familiar—perhaps too familiar for its own good. The basic plot is one that dates back at least as far as 1931’s The Public Enemy, and probably even farther: brothers on opposite sides of the law.
The brothers here are played by the same actors who played brothers-under-the-skin in Gray’s last film, The Yards (2000): Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. Wahlberg plays Joe Grusinsky, a police captain in 1988 Brooklyn and a son of NYPD deputy chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Joe’s been appointed to head an elite narcotics task force targeting Brooklyn’s burgeoning Russian Mafia, in the person of Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov). This threatens to bring Joe into direct conflict with his black-sheep brother Bobby (Phoenix), who runs a popular nightclub called El Caribe, where Vadim holds court and does much of his business. Bobby’s druggie lifestyle has so strained his family ties that he uses his late mother’s maiden name of Green, and nobody at the club—least of all his boss, who is also Vadim’s uncle—knows about the connection between Bobby and Joe and their father.
Things come to a head when a raid at El Caribe sweeps up Vadim, who gets released for lack of evidence (thanks to one of his minions, who commits suicide while in custody). In retaliation, Vadim ambushes Joe and shoots him in the head. When Joe miraculously survives the attack, a repentant Bobby agrees to go undercover to help bring Vadim down.
The underworld setting of We Own the Night is familiar, too—not only from decades of well-worn Hollywood travel, but also from Gray’s own previous films, The Yards and Little Odessa (Gray isn’t exactly a fast worker; this is only his third feature in 13 years). What sets We Own the Night apart isn’t that it shows us things we haven’t seen before, but that Gray somehow gives them a rough beauty that widens our eyes and makes them look emotionally fresh, even as we recognize them from other movies and TV shows.
For example: Is there anything that says “cocaine spoken here” (in movie terms) more clearly than an overhead shot of a jam-packed disco dappled by pools of colored light while Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” throbs on the soundtrack? And yet Gray manages to get under the surface of the cliché, in such a way that the song seems to draw its pulse from the scene rather than the other way around—we can almost smell the beer, the cigarette smoke, the sweat of the dancing bodies. That’s how it goes in scene after scene: We’ve been down this road before, but somehow the scenery looks new. It’s like looking at one of those paint-by-number pictures that were once so popular among dabblers and hobbyists—only this one was done by a gifted painter who knew how to blend the colors in a way that conceals the seam between color No. 6 and color No. 13 right next to it.
Gray’s way with clichés extends to casting. Yes, Wahlberg and Phoenix (and especially Duvall) can play these parts in their sleep, but it’s to their credit (and Gray’s) that they don’t. There’s a texture to their family squabbles—the sense that these spats are part of an ongoing story, that Gray is catching part of a quarrel that’s erupted before—that buttresses the movie’s underlying emotional structure.
And when violence strikes, Gray gives the scenes a kinetic charge that jabs at us and makes us gasp. A case in point is a stunning car chase through a torrential rainstorm, with gunshots coming in muffled pops, all but swallowed by the roar of the downpour. It’s a textbook example of how to construct an action sequence, but Gray has laid the emotional groundwork for it in the characters and situation, so that it doesn’t come off as simply a film-school exercise in stunt work and editing.
We Own the Night lets us know, almost from the outset, that we’re in the presence of a filmmaker in full command of his craft. We may hope that, after three films with similar themes (and even similar casts), James Gray can give the urban-crime genre a rest for a while. But we certainly hope that he won’t make us wait another seven years for his next movie.