While I was watching James Gray’s We Own the Night, I could tell that it was a well made and technically well acted film. It was obvious that Gray (The Yards) had more on his mind than making just another crime thriller. And while I was conscious of all this, I never got the feeling that it was a particularly good movie. It’s almost as if I want to like the film in theory, but in practice find it impossible. Because for whatever the film’s strong points, it remains a completely detached work and, ultimately, a forgettable one.
The movie might best be described as a mix between Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), which likely lends itself to a number of the film’s problems, as both are vastly superior and tend to highlight We Own the Night‘s shortcomings—just compare Gray’s attempts at supposedly harrowing violence with the violence found in Eastern Promises to get an idea of where We Own the Night falls short.
The film takes place in New York City in 1988 and centers around Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a nightclub with ties to the Russian mafia. Bobby also acts as his family’s black sheep, since both his brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall) are cops. It’s not until Joe is shot by the mob outside his home that Bobby decides to use his underworld connections to help the police—mostly in order to protect his family, no matter how shaky their relationship might be.
The crux of the film is supposed to be the “blood is thicker than water” power of family and the risks people will take for those they’re related to, and Gray does a good job juxtaposing this idea with Bobby’s friendships. Unfortunately, on film, the familial relationships never seem genuine. No matter how many times we’re shown or told that Bobby, Joe and Burt are family, it never truly feels that way.
A good portion of this is the fault of the performances, and while, from a perfectly technical standpoint, they are fine, they lack any real type of emotion. Wahlberg spends a good chunk of the film off-screen, and when he does make an appearance he’s mostly wasted—especially after seeing his performance in The Departed. Phoenix seems to be in classic Oscar-bait mode, taking a page from Sean Penn and mistaking glum for authentic and powerful, which just ends up making his character completely unlikable. This is a symptom of the film’s overall failing, since there isn’t a single character that you genuinely care about. The entire film, in fact, is overcast in the same sense of gloom that Phoenix carries around with him, making it too detached and dispassionate.
There isn’t a single aspect of We Own the Night that makes it overwhelmingly ordinary. Rather it’s a primer in how to make a movie completely satisfactory. But moviegoers in search of the real deal shouldn’t fret; if you hurry, you should still be able to catch Eastern Promises on the big screen. Rated R for strong violence, drug material, language, some sexual content and brief nudity.