We Own The Night EclipseMagazine.com Movie Review 

James Gray’s We Own The Night is a tale of two brothers – one a cop one a nightclub manager who doesn’t know he’s working for the Russian mob. It’s an attempt to take a classic Cain & Abel/prodigal son tale and invest it with a subtext that reads exactly opposite to the surface story. It’s a laudable effort that really wants to be this year’s The Departed – but it doesn’t quite work.

It’s a story we’ve seen before: a father, Burt Grusinsky [Robert Duvall] has two sons – one, Joseph, a good son who follows in his father’s footsteps; the other, Robert [Joaquin Phoenix] takes his mother’s maiden name and lives a live of hedonism, totally disconnected from the rest of his family. The usual story arc is that something happens to bring the wayward son back into the fold, and so it is here.

Written and directed by James Gray, We Own the Night uses the first insurgence of the Russian Mafia into the New York area in the seventies as the backdrop for the two brothers’ tale. The point of entry is that a Russian drug dealer, Vadim Nezhinski [Alex Veadov] is using the club Bobby manages as his point of sale. When the NYPD busts him on the premises, it brings turmoil into the lives of the brothers – Joseph is a captain in the NYPD and led the raid – under the authority given him by the Chief of Police, his father, Burt. Shortly thereafter, Joseph is gunned down outside his home on Thanksgiving Eve.

Unknown to Bobby, the club’s owner, a kindly grandfather, Marat Buzhayev [Moni Moshonov], is the head of the Russian Mafia, so when Buzhayev talks about Bobby being like a son to him, there’s more there than mere surface meanings – especially since Nezhinski is his nephew, and has offered Bobby a chance to get in on their drug business. He brags about the hit on Joseph, not realizing that he’s Bobby’s brother. Maintaining his calm, Bobby takes Nezhinski up on his offer to tour the drug facility and goes in wired.

We Own The Night EclipseMagazine.com Movie Review

At this point, things go wrong and all hell breaks loose – leading to a fatality that changes everything about Bobby’s life, costing him the woman he loves, Amada [Eve Mendes], who walks out when he gets too involved in a potentially deadly course of action.

We Own The Night looks like a regular cop thriller. You’ve got your basic bad guys, your basic good guys, and a conflicted character who sort of straddles both worlds. The story of the brothers is as old as Cain and Abel, and the prodigal son. These elements play out pretty much as you’d expect. Gray directs his script in a straightforward manner, using pacing, music and palette [greys, blues and earth tones] to create an atmosphere that is entirely appropriate to the surface tale.

But here’s where things aren’t quite what they appear: Bobby is genuinely happy in his hedonistic life. He has a great job and a beautiful girlfriend who really loves him. The surrogate family formed by Marat and his wife and grandchildren, is a source of joy for the unknowing Bobby. When that life is taken from him by his brother’s near-fatal shooting and the following fatality of someone else he loves, the film takes on the typical overtones of a revenge film. Bobby determines to avenge these events but Phoenix doesn’t play him as an avenging angel.

We Own The Night EclipseMagazine.com Movie Review

Instead, the loss of his good life has shattered Bobby in ways we probably can feel but not quite understand. After all, he’s gone from that self-centered, ego boosting lifestyle to one that we recognise as being morally sound and upright. We understand his need for vengeance and applaud his restraint when the opportunity arrives – truly, he is now one of the good guys.

But look into his eyes and you see a completely different thing. After the shattering loss of the life he loved, Bobby has become the good guy, tracked down the bad guys, subsumed his need for vengeance to what’s right and made the decision to follow in father’s and brother’s footsteps – but there is absolutely nothing in his eyes. There is no joy or celebration there. Bobby is a broken man.

And therein lays the insurmountable problem with We Own The Night. Bobby’s descent into a form of living death is a direct result of doing the right thing, but only the subtlety of Phoenix’s acting even hints at the turmoil he goes through before he loses all the joy in his life. Most viewers won’t even realize that this is the case, and that reduces the film to being just another cop thriller.

For all its ambition, We Own The Night falls short of its goals. Gray gets some marvellous performances from his cast – especially Eve Mendes, who is really not much more than window dressing, but who makes Amada a poignant character. Unfortunately that’s not enough to elevate the film to the level of greatness. Its failing in this regard renders it an average movie – and a depressing one at that.

Final Grade: C


No Responses to “”

  1. jimorris Says:

    “We Own the Night” is a crime drama set in NYC in the 70’s. Story involves a family who has a father and son on the police force plus a son who is indirectly involved in the club drug business. Some of the twists in the plot are not very believable, but there are good performances.

    GRADE = “B-“

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