Director James Gray is rapidly establishing himself as one of America’s up-and-coming filmmakers, one of those for whom you eagerly await his newest release. Gray really has the pulse of Brooklyn down pat: the vibe of the streets, the eclectic mix of cultures, the sense of family values. This last point appears to be particularly important in Gray’s work (it’s omnipresent in the excellent Two Lovers, which takes his talents to another level), and it’s the backbone of We Own the Night‘s narrative arc. A brief plot summary: Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) runs a nightclub in Brighton Beach—a heavily Russian part of Brooklyn—where he snorts coke and parties until the wee hours with his gorgeous Hispanic girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) & best friend Jumbo (Danny Hoch). Despite his happy-go-lucky ways, Bobby mostly stays out of the way of the Russian mob, who frequent the club on a regular basis: Marat’s (Moni Moshonov)—the owner of the club, and Bobby’s business mentor—nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) is one of their dirtiest members. Unbeknownst to everyone except Amada, however, Bobby’s family are major players in the NYPD: his father Bert (Robert Duvall) is a famous police chief—”We Own the Night” refers to a motto on the NYPD badges—and his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlbergh) has just been promoted to Captain (Bobby uses his mother’s maiden name, Green, to avoid recognition). When Bobby discovers that his family is part of a mob hit list, he’s forced to choose sides in an all-out war.
We Own the Night, Gray’s third feature, starts off like gangbusters—the first hour is expertly crafted. 1988 New York was a rough-and-tumble place, with criminal activity running rampant, and the police were often overmatched: Gray captures this perfectly. Thanks in large part to Phoenix’s superb performance, Bobby’s conflicted loyalties—his love for his father & brother vs. his rebellious nature and desire to break free of his ‘natural’ path—really shine through. That expectation of following in your family’s footsteps is deeply embedded in Brooklyn culture, and Gray does a great job of nailing Bobby’s internal strife over his life direction. As Bobby tries to decide whom he can count on, a 25th Hour-esque sense of distrust peeks out at the viewer (which would be decidedly welcome; Spike Lee expertly handles the palpable sense of unease in his 2002 masterpiece).
Unfortunately, that sense never really materializes: the second half of We Own the Night is much spottier than the first, with several predictable “twists” and too many climaxes. Gray seems unclear on how to wrap things up, and concludes the film in herky-jerky fashion. It’s never dull—in fact, We Own the Night is exciting and entertaining throughout, due in large part to stylish-yet-controlled camerawork, appropriately dark color schemes, and editing—but the promise of the first half never comes to fruition, despite several powerful sequences and an expertly-shot, exciting car chase. The supporting performances are mostly solid, if unspectacular—Veadov is the standout, while Mendes is the weakest link. If We Own the Night is flawed and somewhat choppy, it served notice that Gray, once he refined his technique and developed a more consistent directorial flow, would be a force to be reckoned with in the cinema world. And judging by the power of Two Lovers from start to finish, he’s well on his way to reaching his immense potential.