We Own The Night

October, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:James Gray

Starring:Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, and Robert Duvall

The talented writer/director James Gray, (Odessa, The Yard) appears on a downward trajectory with his third film, a desultory examination of New York City Irish cops and the Russian gangsters who fought for control of that city’s streets in the drug-infested climate of the late 1980’s. Despite its seasoned and able cast, (Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duval, etc.) Gray’s screenplay and direction lack the promise of the award-winning films which preceded it. Third time’s definitely not a charm…

In Night, Bobby Greene, (Phoenix) and Joe Grusinksy, (Wahlberg) are brothers; the former a lounge lizard running a dance club in Queens and the latter a rising star in the city’s police department, improbably headed by their father, (Duval). When members of the Russian mob begin to use Bobby’s club as a marketing location for selling drugs, Bobby has a choice to make; long estranged from his law ‘n order family, he must decide if blood is thicker than the wad of cash crime can put in his pocket. There’s absolutely nothing new in this storyline; much violence ensues, romances end, familial bonds are tested and Bobby morphs into one of New York’s finest in as improbable a career turn as any in recent screen memory.

In Odessa, Gray’s award-winning 1994 debut, he effectively delivered a compelling examination of the cultural tensions and obligations inherent in the Russian immigrant community that has taken over several Long Island suburbs. The Yard followed six years later, providing an examination of the blue-collar values and kinship bonds found in the city’s working class neighborhoods. Gray re-visits both subjects here without breaking new ground and with the exception of an accurately captured awards banquet held in the parish hall of a local Catholic church, nothing in this movie has the stamp of authenticity that marked his earlier work. 

Gray’s budget may have been eaten up in payroll expense; there are few establishing shots to provide audiences with a specific sense of place and many scenes are framed in a style borne out of cost consciousness rather than any attempt to convey the mood of the movie’s consistently dark themes.

As Joe, Wahlberg has so little to do that one wonders why he took the part; having played the lead in The Yard, perhaps he felt he owed the director a favor. There is none of the boyish innocence Wahlberg displayed in Invincible nor the menacing fierceness of his embittered detective in The Departed. Anyone with a union card from Actor’s Equity could just as easily have taken this role. Duvall, who manages to breathe life into the deadliest of scripts, fails here because of the inane dialogue Gray provides. But it’s Phoenix who really stumbles; he’s worked with the director before, but the actor seems to be intent on reprising his turn playing Johnny Cash opposite Reese Witherspoon’s Academy Award performance in the much over-rated I Walk The Line; every facial expression here is constipated, every line of dialogue mumbled so artlessly audiences can be forgiven for concluding that Phoenix sees this role as penance for past sins rather than as a showcase for a career that’s had as many disappointments as successes.

With only three films to his credit in thirteen years, Gray obviously takes his time bringing projects to the screen; let’s hope his next film is worth the wait.

The verdict? A dull, unimaginative exploration of well-trod cinematic ground, not even worth renting when it comes out on DVD.       

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