Watching a film clearly modeled after the great crime dramas of the ’70s, especially one with as many epoch-sized lulls in it as We Own the Night, it’s hard not to let your mind drift and allow yourself to idly wonder whether actors like DiCaprio, Wahlberg, and Phoenix are taking the place of Nicholson, DeNiro, and Pacino as the men who fill the roles of cops and gangsters in these “gritty” crime films. If that is in fact the case, well, fuck me, that’s a depressing notion. It’s not that I don’t think that Leo, Mark, and Joaquin — even if they don’t necessarily measure up to their predecessors — aren’t fine actors or anything. It’s just a little dispiriting to know that today’s performances may be tomorrow’s caricatures, and that Mark Wahlberg’s arched-eyebrow smirk may soon become permanently etched upon his face, something he’ll exploit for laughs in 14th sequel to Meet the Parents, presumably entitled Meet the Dipshits. What’s perhaps even more painful is to watch Joaquin Phoenix, a dramatic actor with whom I have a modest amount of appreciation, actually run the DeNiro/Pacino/Nicholson gamut in a single film; he is, at different times in We Own the Night, a brooding mumbler, an over-the-top screamer, and, finally, a melodramatically off-kilter Shticklson.
It’s not entirely Phoenix’s fault, however. In fact, most of what’s wrong with We Own the Night — and make no mistake, there’s a lot wrong with it — can be directly attributed to writer-director James Gray, who, after The Yards, seems to be fashioning a career out of making mediocre films that waste the talents of Phoenix and Wahlberg. In this one, inexplicably set in the very “gritty” year of 1988 (a year that saw Terrence Trent Darby and Rick Astley top the charts, though it is Blondie featured in the soundtrack), Phoenix plays Bobby Greene, the manager of a Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach. Though no explanation is ever given as to why, he has a strained relationship with his family, composed of his father, Deputy Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall), and his brother, Lt. Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg). Joseph is head of a narcotics task force charged with breaking up a drug ring run out of Bobby’s nightclub.
Initially, Burt and Joseph make overtures to Bobby, asking him to act as an observer for the police force in their efforts to break up the ring. Bobby, however, rebuffs them, though again there is little reason offered as to why he wouldn’t want to help his family. But after a Russian mobster shoots Joseph in the face, nearly killing him, and then puts his father on a death list, Bobby quickly changes allegiances. Because he uses his mother’s maiden name (how convenient) and the mobsters don’t know he’s related to the Grusinsky cops, he’s able to act as snitch, a setup, though predictable, that’s tailor-made for at least few uncomfortably tense situations.
Unfortunately, Gray would rather mask the intensity with an obnoxiously loud score and then completely drain the occasionally powerful performance with ridiculously stylized close-ups and slow motion shots seemingly stolen from public access television directors. He completely ruins the one truly exhilarating sequence in the film — a car-chase shoot-out set to the rhythm of windshield wipers — by capping it with a moment of grief so overwrought that even freshmen at the Brett Ratner Academy of Film would cringe with contempt. Add to that the many police movie platitudes (“All that matters is that we finish this!”), characters’ motivations seemingly driven by their horoscopes, and absurdly implausible mechanics (at one point, Bobby is deputized, as though the film were set in Mayberry), and what you get is one gigantic mess of a movie. And that doesn’t even include the many interminable dead spots, where I found myself not hushing the jackasses talking behind me, but actually becoming more engrossed with their conversation about dinner plans than I was with the film.
Still, for all his efforts to do so, Gray couldn’t quite kill the lead performances. Wahlberg, playing another sullen badass, does well with what he has to work with, while Robert Duvall — even when he mails it in, as he does here — is better than most dramatic actors. As for Phoenix, I’m convinced that his best performance was left on the cutting room floor; I think that, at times, Gray asked him to ham it up for the blooper reel and then he ended up using that footage in the final cut, because there are three or four uncharacteristic scenes in We Own the Night in which Phoenix goes apeshit for no reason at all, unless he’s angling for Sean Penn’s Oscar. Surprisingly, the real stand-out effort comes from Eva Mendes as Bobby’s girlfriend, who — despite opening the film with an unnecessary masturbation scene that makes it seem as though we’re about to watch a Disco-era film about the porn industry — actually creates a female character strong enough to temporarily trick me into believing she was secretly the mastermind behind all the drugs and violence. She isn’t, of course, but that would’ve made for a helluva much better film.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
We Own the Night / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 12, 2007 | Comments ()