With a dedication bordering on obsession, filmmaker James Gray continues to plumb the murky depths of crime, family and honor in his limited, but fascinating body of work (thus far, Gray has made three distinct films, each exploring a morally ambiguous world rife with violence and tortured emotions; he's currently filming Two Lovers, according to IMDb, which might be his first non-crime-themed effort). We Own the Night, an epic that owes a heavy debt to the grungy, edgy aesthetic of prime Seventies cinema, the works of Sidney Lumet, Michael Cimino or Martin Scorsese.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes, We Own the Night chronicles the journey of Bobby Green (Phoenix), a nightclub owner in late-Eighties Brooklyn, whose brother Joe (Wahlberg) and father Albert (Duvall) are employed as mid-level cops with the primary goal of wiping out street crime. The Greens are a house divided, as Bobby's lifestyle clearly lies at odds with that of his relatives'. However, Bobby can't walk away from the comfortable, numb life that he leads until a series of tragic events forces him to re-consider the notions of loyalty, family and sacrifice.
Given that We Own the Night was misrepresented as a sort-of shoot 'em up domestic drama, it's understandable that a lot of people came away from the film disappointed. Of course, if they'd sought out Gray's equally overlooked and underrated The Yards from seven years ago, they would've understood the tools Gray works with. Deliberate, judiciously violent and steeped in the kind of classical tragedy that fuels some of Hollywood's best crime flicks, Gray intuitively understands the power of slow-burn family dynamics; again, his filmography to date is comprised solely of the bonds between men and their families, bonds complicated by unsavory lifestyles.
We Own the Night bends in some interesting ways, ending far afield from where it begins and taking this fantastic cast along for the ride; Phoenix and Wahlberg previously teamed with Gray for The Yards (and Phoenix is again working with Gray in Two Lovers) and both men turn in excellent work. Phoenix, in particular, has the meatiest role and makes the most of it; Wahlberg continues his streak of solid character acting. Duvall is reliably solid and Mendes is quietly revelatory as the sensual, conflicted gang moll Amada Juarez.
Ultimately, unless you patiently let Gray's world envelop you and work its magic, We Own the Night could leave you feeling cold. He pulls you into the lives of these characters and the messy, bloody choices they make, but on his own terms and at his own speed. We Own the Night is a low-key cinematic experience, but one that leaves a lasting impression.
Superfluous visual flourishes aside (the slo-mo gets to be a bit much), this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer does justice to the gray, forlorn palette employed by cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay. The numerous night-time set pieces have a crispness and clarity matched by the action sequences, which never devolve into muddiness. Overall, a sturdy, solid transfer.
Despite the handful of shootouts sprinkled throughout Gray's film, We Own the Night relies primarily on dialogue, much of it shouted or hissed through clutched teeth. As such, the Dolby Digital 5.1 has a few moments to shine -- the club sequences, in particular, boast immersive detail -- but is largely relegated to conveying a lot of talking. It gets the job done, with no distortion or drop-out marring the many words. Optional French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Gray contributes a typically dense, informative commentary track, further complimented by a trio of featurettes, all presented in anamorphic widescreen: The 15 minute, 13 second "Tension: Creating We Own the Night"; the 10 minute, 20 second "Police Action: Filming Cops, Cars and Chaos" and the eight minute, 58 second "A Moment in Crime: Creating Late 80's Brooklyn." Trailers for Vantage Point, 21, 30 Days of Night, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Across the Universe, Damages: The Complete First Season, Revolver, Southland Tales, Sleuth, Revenge, Donnie Brasco, Taxi Driver and Steep complete the disc.
Unless you patiently let writer/director James Gray's world envelop you and work its magic, We Own the Night could leave you feeling cold. He pulls you into the lives of these characters and the messy, bloody choices they make, but on his own terms and at his own speed. We Own the Night is a low-key cinematic experience, but one that leaves a lasting impression. Recommended.