We Own The Night (2007)

James Gray probably won't make a great film until he hires a scriptwriter. His over-fondness for contrived plotting and quoting other films without wit never keeps pace with his visual acumen and touch with actors. Nonetheless, the second ultra-dark neo-noir film I’ve seen this week isn’t as taut as Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, but it’s also, in some ways, richer in its palette. Like that film it begins with a provocatively sexy scene where the hero and his girl make out, instantly skewering the audience with carnal fantasy, establishing just what the “hero” does not want to lose, and few will blame him. This film represents a step forward for Gray, whose last film, The Yards, was done in by its embarrassing debt to On The Waterfront. But, as promised by his eye-catching debut, Little Odessa, his visual stylisation has achieved a pitch of mastery. We Own The Night does some quoting too – of The French Connection, Scorsese, and De Palma, but it’s a movie with internal integrity.

Visually, it's near-brilliant, with its carefully observed and detailed crowd scenes and group interactions, its lovingly shot and lit interiors, and dazzling, impressionistic action scenes, evoking a heady atmosphere. A car chase in the rain, and the final pursuit in a field of waving weeds, are beautifully conceived and executed sequences that the likes of Tarkovsky or Malick may have conjured if they hadn't artified themselves out of reach. Fate and fear stalk nightclub manager Joaquin Phoenix, forcing him to abandon his aspirational fantasies and take up the fierce warrior status he was born to – in this case his Brooklyn police family, with patriarch Robert Duvall and brother Mark Wahlberg already serving and pressing him to fight the good fight.

The film establishes an interesting note of socio-economic conflict, contrasting the ebullient, colourful, sexy nightclub world that Phoenix has conquered, with the parsimonious, ruggedly proletarian, permanently worried-looking cops he grew up amongst. At conflict are two families of Slavic immigrants – Phoenix’s family, the Grusinskys, with their air of stern moral rectitude, and the clan he’s been virtually adopted by, the Buzhayevs, whose air of fecund familial warmth and success is reassuring but is built from horror and exploitation. Phoenix soon forced to look some harsh truths in the face and decide where his loyalties lie. The twist that Gray produces from this generic set-up is the notion that in doing so Phoenix is swapping the life he loves for the life ordained for him – neither his values nor his sense of family loyalty let him retain his grasp on that gilded, sensual demimonde. The finale sees him assured in his righteousness, having hunted down and shot a man, and had to abandon everything that he dreamed of, in favour of what he thinks is right. It’s an interesting spin on The Godfather’s journey for Michael Corleone, whose loyalty dictated he abandon righteousness – the same process is as dourly necessary for Phoenix, just as cheerless, and, it so happens, in the opposite direction. Adherence to conscience can be a gruelling thing.

Despite Gray's limitations, he's conjured a multi-levelled work, an interesting way to white-ant standard portrayals of glamorised law enforcement, in the likes of, say, Bad Boys, where there’s no conflict between a desire to live the high life - enjoy the American Dream at its glutting finest - and the need to fight for what’s right – that is, defend that dream for other, disinterested people. The film further eats away at macho cliché, in using Wahlberg, the relentless hard-ass of Scorsese’s snappier but less substantial The Departed, as the brother who initially also seems to be an icon of tough, but who finishes the film suffering from post-traumatic stress, sharing haunted, almost pathetic expressions of love with his brother, clinging to each-other in a harsh world. It would make an interesting double bill, too, with Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – both films have villains based on the same real-life Russian gangster. If Cronenberg’s film was slack in narrative in favour of exploring perverse textures of sex and violence, and We Own The Night too smooth ultimately in purveying a familiar arc in maintaining its pose as a genre film, both movies do fascinating, subversive things to the crime flick.

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