A crime drama with the pulp, grit, style and tone of a William Friedkin or Sidney Lumet film made in the 1970s/early-1980s, "We Own the Night" puts up no false airs about its aspirations toward evoking that golden era of cinema. Even the official one-sheeta stark black-and-white profile shot of a serious-faced Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberglooks as if it has been transported directly from 1978. Though writer-director James Gray (2000's "The Yards") makes his influences known, he still allows room to put his own personal mark on the proceedings. Indeed, "We Own the Night" is an initially engrossing slow-burn that accelerates its pace without notice, diverges from expectations, and culminates in a second half that is no less than riveting.
The year is 1988, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hip, smooth-talking manager of a swingin' Brooklyn nightclub. As a sharp contrast, father Burt (Robert Duvall) and brother Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) are well-respected police officers who see him as the black sheep of the family. When Burt and Joseph ambush Bobby's club one night in search of suspected Russian druglord and hitman Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), it opens up the floodgates for a war between the gang and the NYPD. After offering up his services as an informant, Bobby is placed squarely in the middle, his life and the life of girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes) suddenly in grave danger.
The plot of "We Own the Night" is pretty standard for the genre, and the touchy sibling relationship between Bobby and Joseph lacks the punch intended due to the latter character too often fading into the background. Otherwise, the film is an expertly felt piece with flashes of surprising ingenuity and story developments that come when the viewer least expects them. What starts as a setup to a conflict between Bobby and a law enforcement represented by Joseph and Burt quickly becomes more complicated and intriguing as the focal point readjusts itself. Slam-bang set-pieces follow, including a cat-and-mouse hunt through a marshland and an instant contender for this year's best car chasea stunningly executed and grippingly claustrophobic road attack set in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, the music score silenced in exchange for the subtle, unnerving sounds of the windshield wipers and tire screeches.
Despite being advertised as a picture with two equal leads, Mark Wahlberg's (2007's "Shooter
") screen time is comparatively scant and, through events left to be discovered, he disappears for a large chunk of the middle act. In fact, hefty supporting players Robert Duvall (2007's "Lucky You
") and Eva Mendes (2007's "Ghost Rider
") leave deeper impressions than Wahlberg. Duvall is commanding yet touchingly fallible as patriarch Burt, who doesn't realize how much both his sons mean to him until he nearly loses them. As Amada, Mendes convincingly captures the strength of her love for Bobby and the quandary she faces after being put in a dire situation she is not sure how to get out of. Both actors are very, very good in roles that are nonetheless fairly by-the-numbers.
That leaves the intensely talented Joaquin Phoenix (2005's "Walk the Line
") to primarily carry things on his own. Bobby, a man who defiantly has gone down a different path than his dad and brother only to be pulled into their fold, is the person we most identify with and the one written with the most depth and clarity. Phoenix only gets better with his every project, and here he is a mesmerizing tornado of frequently evolving emotions and characteristics, each onepomposity, rebellion, regret, nobility, vengefulness, despaira window into another piece of this multilayered character's soul.
"We Own the Night" concludes on a somewhat quieter and more abrupt note than audiences might be expecting. By not tossing out plot twists for the sake of them and following a straighter, more naturally unfolding narrative, the concentration can be placed on the characters, their predicaments, and the pure assuredness of James Gray's direction. The final shot, simplistic though it is, puts an ingratiating cap on where Bobby's and Joseph's lives have gone and where they have, against all odds, ended up. "We Own the Night" is taut, intelligent and confidently unpretentious about what it sets out to, and does, achieve within the crime-thriller mold.