We Own the Night is the greatest crime drama since The Godfather: Part II. Much like Coppla’s classic film trilogy, We Own the Night is more interested in developing rich characters than in pushing forward a plot. The action and plot only serve to shape and move the players, mixing family drama with the crime genre, concocting a lethal mix between the personal lives of the family and business.
For Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) it’s all business. He’s the manager of a downtown club where illegal drugs are consumed like martinis. Therefore, he doesn’t appreciate it when the cops start circling around him, especially when he discovers that it’s his family leading the drug investigation. It turns out that Bobby is the son of Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), the chief of police and Bobby’s brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), is leading the drug bust.
Tensions flair, voices rise, bad words pass between the two. It has the conventional crime drama veneer of closely knit communal groups which its silent code of ethics. For Bobby, he’s made a life among people who like him and has a future awaiting him in the clubbing business. Plus, he has a girl, Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes). To him, life is on the upswing. If only he knew he was in a James Gray film. He’ll suffer loss, betrayal, anguish and heartbreak by the time the credits roll.
And few modern actors are as good at portraying these emotions as Joaquin Phoenix. He’s disarmingly suave, letting his words hang and a glimpse of vulnerability wins the audience over. Even in his darkest moments, he’s able to garner sympathy from his performance alone. Playing off him are the performances of Robert Duvall and Mark Whalberg as these two tough, hard boiled cops. It’s easy to believe the family tensions between the three when they ever occupy the same room. The way they play off each other’s moods create for fantastic scenes where sparks fly.
The drug ring has it out for this family and their assault on the police force will have ramifications that will shake the family to its core. Much like The Yards, James Gray constructs an ever declining tale where no choice is easy but the conclusion is often inevitable and only further increases the trouble surrounding the decision makers. Indecision might mean death, but each decision only provides more sorrow and devastation often ending in a violent and traumatic conclusion.
Growing out of Gray’s sensibilities in The Yards, a lot of the violence is tense and suspenseful instead of a cathartic blowout typical of most movies. The use of sound in particular adds a lot to the buildup of a lot of the more violent moments, creating this kind of bubble of sound that bursts once the first shot is fired. The violence is often harrowing and shocking, deglamorizing a lot of the action.
Gray is also interested in a tantalizing display of images. He brings his signature soft and romanticized look to the film, creating a visual atmosphere where one views the characters more gently. Yet there’s also a heavy immersion in darkness, giving even some of the happiest scenes this tinge of impending doom. The darkness visualizes the grief, sorrow and pain that looms around this family.
Beyond the visual style, Gray does a fantastic job of crafting his images to fit the story and emotion of the scene. Throughout the film, he sucks away a majority of the sound and leaves the play of images and the performances to carry the most raw and intense emotional moments. By removing the sound and often visually obscuring the most emotionally charge element of a given scene, Gray allows the audience to project themselves into the visuals and feel a much stronger emotion than any he could manufacture.
What singles out We Own the Night from the rest of the genre is where it takes the characters. Most crime films follow the same plot arch while We Own the Night twists it into something far more dramatic and unexpected. By the end the characters are far different from where we first found them, a drastic shift from a genre that is often about unchanging people. Yet at the same time, Gray makes a tragedy out of it, even though the characters’ do change in the face of conflict.
This stems from the way the film treats crime. In most crime dramas, the crime is used as a dramatic enhancement of the plot. But in We Own the Night, all the crime elements and acts of crime in the film are used to enhance the tension between these characters, creating for a much more character driven narrative. At its core, this is not a film about the crime lifestyle or the conflict between cops and criminals, but a tale of family.
It’s the core element of all James Gray films. He is first and foremost interested in exploring the dynamic of family, how it works and how it is disintegrated. He’s interested in how people look for a family outside of their own and how one reconciles that with one’s old family. In a media where families are portrayed as more social than biological, Gray delves into how the biological family works (or often doesn’t) and the connection people make to their own family.
It’s the film’s ability to go off in an unexpected direction and take a fairly stale genre and work in the idea of family and essential character conflict that makes We Own the Night so fantastic. It might not be what everyone wants out of a crime drama, but it’s a well-crafted drama. Gray is far more interested in the players of the plot than the actual narrative, focusing on their tales instead of the overall criminal aspects of the film. Some won’t like that, but it’s what makes We Own the Night work so well.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing