We Own The Night Review
When it premiered at Cannes this year, the international press held up James Gray’s We Own The Night as the perfect example of everything that typifies Hollywood cinema and judged it accordingly. Both the high praise and the indifferent reactions it received are justified, the film’s craft impressing just as much as the complete redundancy of the predictable family drama and crime elements of the plot fail to convince.
It’s not that the film’s plot isn’t strong. We Own The Night is a model of economy and precision in how it sets out the central dilemma of Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a successful New York nightclub in Brighton Beach, El Caribe. His choice of lifestyle has set him apart from his family - so much so that he has taken his mother’s maiden name rather than be associated with the name Grusinsky. It’s a surname that carries a lot of weight in the city since his father Bert (Robert Duvall) is city’s almost legendary Deputy Chief of Police, and his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) has recently been promoted to Captain. Bobby rather has been “adopted” by the Russian family of the owner of the nightclub, Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov), and is more than happy – not to mention finding it convenient - to keep his distance from his own police family. The city’s police force however are planning a crackdown on the distribution of drugs in the city – using the slogan that “We Own The Night” – and his family hope they can gain Bobby’s cooperation to help them nail a major supplier who they believe is operating from his nightclub – Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), the nephew of the owner Mr Buzayev.
Caught between his adopted family who look after his interests and his real family who care nothing for the lifestyle he leads or his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), the choice is more complicated than simply doing what appears to be the right thing. There is only so long that Bobby can remain uninvolved however and, as the drug war escalates and becomes personal, he is soon forced to take either one side or the other.
Director James Gray makes the difficulty of Bobby’s position perfectly clear and, assisted by a solid cast all putting in strong performances – Phoenix is particularly robust in the lead role – he manages to draw out the full extent of the tension and danger that arises from the situation, developing a strong family drama with real issues and potentially serious consequences. The tension is heightened with a couple of well-judged set pieces - one where Bobby visits a drug factory undercover and one where he is caught up, inevitably, in a car chase. These set-pieces never overwhelm the drama and are not the raison d’être of the film as they would be in other action movies, nor are they reliant on showy special effects, but they are critical to the purpose of the film and no less explosive. The car-chase sequence in particular being interestingly filmed almost entirely from the inside of Bobby’s car, in driving rain that reduces visibility, but the first-person perspective gives a greater sense of the personal danger and the stakes that Bobby is forced to play with, raising the tension far more effectively that a more traditional distanced perspective might achieve, no matter how spectacularly choreographed.
There is something inevitable however about the necessity of there having to be a high-speed car chase in the film at all, no matter how well done, and that is really my problem with the film – its inevitability. The Godfather set the model for the conflict between family, crime and justice and, although Bobby is more of a Michael Corleone in reverse, he follows a similar inevitable path of closing ranks and dealing with those who threaten his own family, his nearest and dearest. The characterisation fails to provide a convincing reason for the choices Bobby makes - it’s the convention of the crime drama and adherence to traditional American family values that demands it, and while We Own The Night is a better made film than most, it never deviates for one second from that well-trodden path into predictability.