In talking about his cops-versus-Russian-gangsters movie We Own the Night, the writer and director James Gray cites the ancient Greeks’ idea “that one’s life is shaped primarily by forces outside of one’s control, as if the gods had dealt each person a fate—a destiny.” In cinema, though, there’s a thin line between classical destiny and modern formula idiocy. Oedipus’s “destiny” is to kill his father and sleep with his mother; the average movie cop’s “destiny” is to cross the line into bad-guy territory by breaking all the rules to avenge the murder of his fat (or African-American or Asian-American) partner. Gray’s premise is right on the Sophocles/Joe Eszterhas border. The film centers on two brothers—one (Joaquin Phoenix) a druggie and the manager of a shady nightclub, the other (Mark Wahlberg) a cop with a broomstick up his butt. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one because you have. The larger question is, If Gray and his (great) actors see destiny where I see cliché, will the strength of their belief make a difference to the finished product—give it a core of authenticity that lifts it out of the B-movie gutter? The answer is a guarded but affectionate yes. We Own the Night plays like gangbusters.
Queens Russian gangbusters—Gray being a native of the borough and of Russian stock. It’s 1988, a high point in the city’s cocaine-fueled devastation, and “We Own the Night” is the slogan of the street-crimes unit, bailiwick of Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Wahlberg). Bobby (Phoenix) hasn’t seen his brother or police-chief dad (Robert Duvall) in months. When he reluctantly shows up for Joseph’s decoration ceremony in a church basement, he’s stoned out of his mind and toting his Latina honey (Eva Mendes) as a shield. That’s when he’s escorted by his dad and a phalanx of officers upstairs, to the chapel, and asked to work undercover, the stakes reflected in the religious icons and the deep-toned pews. Destiny waits.
The casting of Duvall is a kind of shorthand. The actor is so disciplined, so marvelously at ease in his body, that he stands, effortlessly, for the ultimate old-fashioned patriarch: Who could measure up? Not Bobby, who labors to define himself in opposition. Not Joseph, who overcame dyslexia to triumph at the police academy but whose tightness signals inner panic. The brothers are in the same place, only they won’t admit it to themselves or each other.
The conflict might be heavy-handed without Phoenix’s face—his irresolution somehow more powerful than other actors’ resolve. There is no artifice. He’s not an actor disappearing into a role but a man disappearing into himself. Around his dad and brother Phoenix’s Bobby looks physically ill, as if their presence is toxic, a threat to his freedom, even his existence. When he does, ultimately, consent to cooperate, the words seem to come from somewhere other than his head—half-mumbled, half-sighed, as if they’ve been inside him all along. Gray’s idea of character is a little pat for my taste, but Phoenix homes in on the truth of this person. It’s the paradox of the greatest acting: By depicting a man’s struggle to close himself down, he opens himself up wider than any of us would dare.
Apart from its smug villain (Alex Veadov)—another Russian sociopath who hisses things to underlings like “You talk to the police and I rape and disembowel your mother”—We Own the Night has none of the usual genre bombast. There’s little in the way of music—it’s mostly an ambient whine mixed with cars on wet streets and passing planes. The feel is seventies New York realism. That said, the film is considerably more commercial (and splattery) than Gray’s last, The Yards, which was slow, almost groggy: The light seemed unable to pass through air thickened by corruption; the protagonist (Wahlberg again) moved through the bowels of Queens like a somnambulist. Here, we get a car chase.
A different kind of car chase, though. It’s all shot from Bobby’s perspective, behind a windshield in a hard rain and behind the action, too. Even with his foot on the pedal, the deluge makes it seem as if he’s underwater, unable to catch up, unable to alter what he (and we) see coming from the proverbial mile away. Gray knows how to sell the idea of unalterable destiny with a car chase: That’s the mark of a real action director.