On a show like The Wire, policemen and criminals belong to competitive organizations locked in uneasy, permanent coexistence. In We Own the Night, James Gray's operatic new film, the police and drug dealers are imagined as warring tribes in a fight to the death. The Russian gangsters on one side appear ready to take out the entire NYPD. And some of the cops are just as eager to forgo the legal niceties and do some righteous killing of their own.
In other words, We Own the Night is not a procedural, in which the narrative is threaded through details of the job and close observations of big-city life. It is, rather, a bloody, passionate melodrama, self-consciously Shakespearean - or Biblical, or Greek, take your pick of atavisms - in its intentions.
At the enter are two brothers: Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), a clean-cut, ambitious family man rising quickly through the ranks of the department, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), who has forsaken the family surname and who manages a raucous nightclub in Brooklyn.
Cain and Abel; the ant and the grasshopper. Bobby and Joseph present, at least at first, wildly contrasting temperaments as well as divergent career choices. Joseph takes after their father, Burt (Robert Duvall), a high-ranking officer who can barely contain his disappointment and disgust when Bobby is in the room. But Bobby, while he may be as irresponsible as his father and brother think he is, also has a sweet, impulsive, hedonistic side. He shows it in an early scene of sexual bliss with his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), and in the way he bounces through his cavernous club and into the apartment of its owner, a grandfatherly Russian named Buzhayev. Bobby is loving, and also lovable.
We Own the Night
DIRECTED BY: James Gray
STARRING: Mark Wahlberg (Joseph Grusinsky), Joaquin Pheonix (Bobby Green), Eva Mendes (Amada), Robert Duvall (Burt), Danny Hoch (Jumbo)
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: Today
But he is also a traitor. Much as he may revel in the company of his surrogate family, the claims of blood are stronger. When Buzhayev's gangster nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov) causes Joseph to be hurt, Bobby puts away his childish sense of fun and gets down to the grim business of settling scores.
As this happens, the life begins to leak out of We Own the Night, and out of Phoenix's performance.
There is nothing especially interesting or new in the film. We Own the Night is set in 1988, a wilder and more dangerous time in the city's history. But in spite of a few historically apt musical selections and a digitally enhanced cameo appearance by former mayor Ed Koch, this is less a period movie than an exercise in free-floating nostalgia.
It's not nostalgia for any particular time or place, but rather for a mythical, tribal America where the obligations of clan trump individual desires. An index of Bobby's betrayal is that he has adopted his mother's maiden name, and his attempt to escape into a life of easy pleasure, social mobility and self-invention is doomed from the start. Where he ends up is where he always belonged.