Writer/director James Gray is quite the sporadic filmmaker, having helmed only three films in the last 13 years. His latest effort, We Own the Night, is a crime drama (a niche of Gray’s) set during the late 1980’s, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg (both men pull double duty as producers).
Much like Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, this film begins with a raunchy sex scene, used as an example of the debauchery fuelled, high living lifestyle led by Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), black sheep of the Grusinsky family of cops (he has taken his mothers maiden name), and manager of a popular New York City nightclub owned by the Russian mob.
As Bobby spends his nights fondling his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes), his brother Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) is put in charge of a new narcotics task force targeting the Russian mafia, forever under the watchful eye of his Police Captain father Albert (Robert Duvall). When Joseph gets a little too close for the Russians taste he is shot, prompting Bobby to defend his family by playing mole within the mob.
We Own the Night’s initial premise of two brothers on opposite sides of the law is both intriguing and absorbing, and the first half crackles with a great set up and set pieces. Yet the film unfortunately climaxes way too early and cannot get back on track.
The film features a cast of strong actors who all give equally commanding performances. Phoenix shows off his broad range in a role which reminds of Al Pacino in The Godfather, as a young man is forced to face his destiny via a family tragedy. Mark Wahlberg is also good, yet is taken out of the game far too soon with his character never given the opportunity to develop.
The impression from the films marketing was that equal screen time would be given to Phoenix and Wahlberg, yet this is unfortunately not the case. This is a missed opportunity by Gray, since the natural chemistry between his two leads would have kept the film afloat during its stormy patches.
Robert Duvall does his grizzled old man thing to great effect, and Eva Mendes more than matches up to the men.
We Own the Night is not a conventional crime movie: there is depth in its themes of redemption and family responsibility, and a thrilling car chase/shoot out – which features a gut wrenching conclusion – is handled subtly without relying on clichés.
However, the films second half ventures through too many implausible directions which undercuts its realistic tone, inhibiting the film from becoming a new crime classic and settling instead with being a very good cop movie.