In the late 1980s, the New York Police Department adopted the slogan “We Own the Night,” as their promise to wrest back control of the streets from the gangsters and drug dealers who rose to prominence and threatened to tear the city apart.
Writer-Director James Gray adopted the dictum as the title for his new film, a police drama focused on a particularly turbulent and violent period in New York’s history. The year is 1988 and an ascendant Russian mob is solidifying its hold on the outer boroughs as it corners the narcotics market. A thriving club scene provides the perfect environment to facilitate these criminals’ meteoric rise. Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a peripheral role in this organized crime network, managing a Brighton Beach nightclub for a Russian black market fur trader named Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov). Though Bobby is not actively involved in the drug trade, he cooperates by looking the other way as his club is used as a major place of business by Vadim Neshinski (Alex Veadov), an exceptionally vicious dealer. Rather than concern himself with the Russians’ shady operations, he prefers to immerse himself in the club culture’s hedonistic lifestyle, dabbling in hard drugs and partying with his beautiful girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendez).
That Bobby comes from a family of decorated New York City police officers is a fact he keeps closely guarded, mainly by changing his last name. His father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), is the district chief of police, and his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is second-in-command. When the department begins to zero-in on Neshinski’s operation, the two approach Bobby, hoping to enlist his help in bringing the Russians down. “Sooner or later, you’re either gonna be with us, or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers,” Burt warns his son, a fact illustrated when Joseph coordinates a police raid of Bujayev’s club, arresting his prodigal brother in the process.
The film’s main thrust comes from the choices Bobby is forced to make when his two worlds collide. Neshinski offers to bring him in to the fold in his enterprise, while suggesting that the men responsible for the club raid, namely, Bobby’s father and brother, will be targeted by the mob. When Joseph is almost killed by one of Neshinski’s thugs, Bobby’s allegiance is set in stone. He will help the police.
The most fascinating aspect of We Own the Night is the current of fatalism that runs through it. Whether Bobby had a choice in his course of action is open to debate. He’s undergone no drastic changes of personality that make him different at the end of the film from what he was at the beginning. He simply responds to outside pressures in the only way that seems right to him. The instinctual loyalty he feels to his family is too strong to ignore, and once he makes the initial decision to help the police take Neshinski down, momentum carries him farther and farther away from his former livelihood. He’s playing for a different team now, but he probably never imagined that the consequences would be so far reaching.
Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his best performances in this film. There’s a certain disguised helplessness to Bobby Green. Even though he’s absolutely certain he’s doing the right thing, and tries to maintain the façade of a man in control, part of him appears ill-at-ease, drained and powerless. By the end of the film, his once-cocky swagger has been replaced by an almost-melancholy resignation. Kudos to Phoenix for completely living in this role and bringing it to life with a level of realism all actors should aspire to.
The rest of the cast delivers fine performances as well, specifically Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall. Wahlberg’s Joseph Grusinsky is an interesting foil to the Boston cop he portrayed in last year’s The Departed. Joseph is a consummate professional, and his dedication to the job and determination to succeed is captured well in Wahlberg’s confident portrayal. Additionally, Duvall brings a weathered, world-weary wisdom to Bobby’s father, and while the actor isn’t stretching himself to bring the character to life, he manages do everything the role requires.
The film isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, and various elements of the story will feel familiar to the audience. However, thanks to the strong performances and James Gray’s strong direction, the clichés inherent to such a story don’t become too obvious or distracting.
One notable exception occurs during the second act, when Bobby’s relationship with his girlfriend begins to disintegrate, precipitated by the immense pressure of their circumstances. This portion of the story takes far too long to play out, and doesn’t really do anything other than overly dramatize the already crystal-clear insinuation that Bobby sacrificed everything he used to love in trying to protect his family.
On final notable feature is the film’s exemplary sound design. Most movies nowadays aim to make a movie as loud as possible, raising the volume to the point where ear drums begin to explode. Technicians on We Own the Night took the opposite approach, filling the aural landscape largely with ambient sound, allowing a tense quiet to permeate the film.
The effect is to amplify the emotional impact of a number of scenes, particularly the rain-drenched car chase that ends the film’s second act. The obvious choice would be the score the scene with some sort of pulsating, energy-infused orchestration.
This particular scene however, viewed from inside Bobby’s car as he watches events unfold, seemingly powerless to influence their outcome, is almost oppressively quiet.
The only sound, other than Bobby’s panic-ridden shouting, is of the windshield wipers scraping back and forth. As a result, the scene is the film’s strongest, an extraordinarily impressive example of action direction, and one of the best car chases since The French Connection. We Own the Night is, for the most part, a very solid crime drama.
Its execution harks back to old school filmmaking, exhibiting a level of restraint and thoughtfulness not present in most recent films of the genre.