Saturday, October 27, 2012

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

James Gray opens We Own the Night with a brief montage of gritty black-and-white still photographs of policemen in the late 1980s. These photos could be a time-capsule for a pre-Giuliani New York, still dangerous, still filthy. Still human, too: a photo of a cop jokingly playing with a finger puppet policeman with a gun breaks up the severe tone of the other stills and seems as foreign to the city as it exists now as the grime that got swept away to make way for hiked rents. But this montage also makes the introduction of Joaquin Phoenix's club owner, Bobby Green, that much more striking. Gray cuts suddenly to the actor in a florid red silk shirt, walking in slow-motion toward the moll (Eva Mendes) lazing on his gold-colored couch in a gold-colored frame. It is the flip-side of the stark photographs' depiction of New York sleaze, the color-drenched euphoria of those who rule as banal warlords over their turf, however small it is.

The juxtaposition of this sweltering, stylish melodrama with the earlier, ascetic realism likewise offers a clue into Gray's approach for the film: always intimately focused with fly-on-the-wall shots that capture the smallest expressions on an actor's face, but framed epically in the style of Michael Cimino or Francis Ford Coppola. Family, whether biologically programmed for manually collected, is as key to Gray's film as it is to The Deer Hunter The Godfather, films whose opening weddings lend to the start of We Own the Night its languid observation and outsized scope. This director moves faster than the other two, quickly laying out who links up to whom, but he displays the same patience for the minute revelations of character communicated by interaction and shot placement. Gray establishes Bobby as stiffly cordial with his father and brother, Burt (Robert Duvall) and Joe (Mark Wahlberg) Grusinsky, police officers both, but familial with the Russian mobster, Marat, who owns Bobby's club. Gray's next film would be Two Lovers, and this just as easily might have been called Two Families. The care Gray takes in setting up Bobby's complicated relationships with both parties makes the later narrative developments natural outgrowths of a fully realized situation rather than the simple genre mechanics they may initially seem.

Consider how Gray fleshes out Bobby's split loyalties. An early scene shows Bobby sitting down with Marat and Marat's wife for dinner. The old couple could not be more welcoming: Marat speaks to the young man as if he were a son, while the old woman fusses about trying to get him to eat one more bite as Bobby sheepishly laughs and declines politely. It has all the warmth missing from Bobby's subsequent meeting with his real father and brother, whose dark blue uniforms reflect their cool emotions on the color spectrum. When Bobby takes Amada to meet his family, Gray films the officers in an extreme long shot looking down from where the couple enter, the small but dense crowd of people leaving a blotch of ink in one corner where the officers stand rigidly. This shot also contrasts with a similar but hedonistically scaled shot back in the club, as many more patrons crush together with grasping hands reaching up at topless dancers in a sleazy recollection of the pyramid of men rising toward Brigitte Helm in Lang's Metropolis.

Yet Gray also suggests contradictory moods underneath these images. The stoic cops may suck the life out of Phoenix's Bacchanalian swagger, but they also attempt to make him part of the family by asking for his help in taking down Marat's nephew, Vadim. Bobby, naturally, refuses, unwilling to sell out the gangster both to save his own skin and out of genuine affection for his new family. Even that earlier, welcoming scene with Marat, however, betrays a truth Bobby might not want to face: nice as the old man is, he still controls Bobby, and all that the young man thinks is his is simply on loan. Much as Bobby delights in heading over to meet with his boss, he is still going to kiss the ring and pay his tribute.

So delicately is this character web spun that Gray takes a great risk funneling it into a genre story of cops and criminals that puts Bobby through the ringer to test his allegiances. When Joe carries out his raid of Bobby's club to arrest Vadim, he sets in motion a spate of reprisals that reveal the mercilessness of Bobby's second family and force him to choose which family to betray and which to support. And as he slowly returns to the side of the law as the prodigal son, Bobby finds himself caught up in stings, shootouts, protection programs and chases that seem worlds away from the stately, minutiae-obsessed opening.

Nevertheless, the inner conflict introduced in the first act inform even the most action-packed moments. Gray elides around typical suspense, playing with expectations of protracted narrative setups. Joe tells Bobby at the start that he is planning to raid his brother's club and arrest his associates, and Bobby scarcely has time to get back to his business before the cops come storming in. Likewise, the director does not string out the mob's push back against Joe, instead cutting almost immediately to the revenge. Yet this makes the attack as surprising for the viewer as it is for Joe, who does not even get the chance to fear for his life until the gun is pointed at his head.

Gray cares less for the tension than the payoff, which he films in moral terms. By not making an entire sequence of Joe being stalked, cornered and shot, he places everything in the split-second look of shock, terror and grim resignation that cross Wahlberg's face before the trigger is pulled. During a car chase between Vadim and a police-transported Bobby and Amada, Gray's kinetic editing spares three or four seconds to watch over Phoenix's soldier out the back window to see a civilian car swerving under a jackknifed semi. The shot allows us to see the crush of metal and the probable death but swivels back to face forward before the vehicle can even come to its full, sickening stop.

Most impressive is the sting that gets Bobby into this mess in the first place. The most traditionally suspenseful sequence of the film, the sting lets the threat of Bobby's exposure as a wired mole hang over his drug deal, but Gray manages to change up even this familiar trope when the deal, as it always must, goes bad. The only thing scarier than Bobby's discovery in this scene is the police's rescue, framed via a burst of machine gun fire flashing in a pitch-black doorway and indiscriminate in its killing. Bobby himself has to fling himself out of a window onto a chain-link fence to escape certain death, but not before one of the mobsters gets his head blown apart right over the man, splashing him with blood in a shot that captures every line of terror and revulsion on Phoenix's face. Violence, as Gray films it, has real consequences; much as the film concerns Bobby, We Own the Night also plays on Wahlberg's image as a brash tough guy to make the brother's PTSD and mounting disgust with guns and danger no less harrowing.

Above all, however, this is a film about identities, wherein names still have their ancient power and one who changes his surname effectively changes his relation. When Burt and Joe try to recruit Bobby into helping them at the start, Duvall speaks his son's altered surname, Green, with a mixture of fury and deep sadness. When the boy later confesses to his dad that he has disavowed Burt and Joe to the point that the mob does not even know of their blood ties, Duvall looks as broken and defeated as he did when his subordinates previously informed him of Joe's shooting. Gray even ties occupation to identity, and Bobby's slow immersion in police activity makes for a street-level version of the grandiose, symbolic analogies Cimino and Coppola drew out of their families. We Own the Night functions on a smaller scale, but its ambition (and formal skill) is no less great, and it is another reminder that James Gray is one of our finest contemporary directors.


  1. Good review Jake. The performances are what really made this flick for me, especially Phoenix who knocks it out of the park. The guy's always great and it's awesome to see him make a full-on, acting comeback, even if he is a bit of a nut.