Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
In "We Own the Night," writer/director James Gray reteams Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as brothers on opposite sides of the law in a film that continues Gray's cinematic obsession with the criminal underground and its impact on the conflicted characters in his films.
As he has in his previous films, "The Yards" and "Little Odessa," Gray proves himself to be a stronger director than writer with a distinct visual style that perfectly complements the film's dark tones and intense themes.
In "We Own the Night," Phoenix portrays Bobby Green, a NYC nightclub manager seemingly on top of the world with a fantastic career, a beautiful girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and all the cocaine he could possibly want. The Russian club owner's nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) deals out of the club, but Bobby turns a blind eye and is rewarded generously.
Of course, Bobby "Green" has a secret in the name of his father, District Police Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and his brother Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), who has just assumed leadership of the Narcotics Division. When Capt. Grusinsky decides to go after the Russian mob dealing out of Bobby's club, Bobby must decide whose side he is really on.
By now, "We Own the Night" should sound like any number of recent crime dramas, ranging from Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" to last year's Oscar-winning "The Departed" and quite a few others. This sense of "been there, seen that" is a huge part of the problem with "We Own the Night," a well-acted but remarkably familiar story with very little in the way of a unique storyline or distinct action to offer. While I'm far from a connoisseur of crime dramas, it required virtually no thought whatsoever to sit there and think to myself about other films that had similar themes, scenes and storylines that had pulled them off with more style, substance and pizzazz.
While Gray can certainly create a unique and exciting atmosphere, his screenplay is simply too familiar and predictable to make for captivating cinema. Without the strong performances of Phoenix and Wahlberg, "We Own the Night" would be simply another throwaway crime drama.
Phoenix, who seems often relegated to characters marked by a certain emotional detachment and/or stoicism, brings Bobby vividly to life with a performance that is drenched in passion and emotion. From Bobby's inner turmoil to his outer explosiveness, Phoenix is utterly captivating.
Likewise Wahlberg, in a more subdued role, blends perfectly with Phoenix and turns a potentially one-note role into a multi-layered, constantly fascinating performance.
Robert Duvall, on the other hand, could easily do this character in his sleep and, while his performance is far from weak it does lack Duvall's usual spark.
One of the most unique characters in the film is that of Bobby's girlfriend, Amada. In your typical crime drama, the beautiful girlfriend is usually a coke-snorting and money obsessed bimbo with no real interest in her man. Gray, on the other hand, has created a perfect storm of conflict for Bobby by making Amada a truly loving girlfriend who, despite all the trappings of the lifestyle, does truly seem to love Bobby. Sadly, Mendes isn't really up for the role and her emotional scenes are uncomfortably histrionic as they play out.
The production design for "We Own the Night" is stellar, though the film is set, for no apparent or obvious reason, in 1988. The cinematography by Joaquin Baca-Asay excels, along with the original score of Wojciech Kilar.
While "We Own the Night" is unlikely to own the box-office, it does offer a wonderful chance to see Joaquin Phoenix shine in an emotional tour-de-force. It's just sad that the film couldn't rise to the heights of Phoenix.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic