There are some filmmakers who love the 1970s and there are some who worship the ‘70s. Put James Gray firmly in the category of falling to his knees in reverence. We Own the Night is Gray in vintage ‘70s flavored cinema and I must confess, I’m right there with him with his passion for that era in films. Why not—it was an incredible decade of telling stories before the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s crushed the spirit of those times. Damn Spielberg and Lucas!
Back to We Own the Night. Gray’s third feature stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as two very different brothers in 1980s Brooklyn. One’s a cop with a rising star (just like their dad played by Robert Duvall) and the other is a club manager who is getting involved with people up to no good. The wayward son will have to make a choice in which direction to go in his life—toward the straight and narrow or the illegal of the Russian mob.
This is the second feature of Gray’s that had Phoenix/Wahlberg in the leads. The Yards (2000) was the first. The story of We Own the Night, it’s meditation on family, crime and choices, are all the themes he keeps returning too. His first film, Little Odessa (1994) had some of the same elements as well.
I got to see Little Odessa with Gray in attendance in 1995 in Seattle and he was extremely energetic in his appreciation of the tone, atmosphere and attitude of films from the ‘70s. I remember him saying that it was the biggest inspiration for him as a filmmaker. With each of his films I think of that night and am kind of comforted by Gray’s inability to move on from that terrific decade. He stubbornly hangs onto the same themes, the same style and keeps trying to make films that feel more like 1976 than 2006.
We Own the Night is no different in that regard. Although set in the 1980s—this is a 1970s kind of film. Unfortunately, the film is lessoned by some plot holes and some behavior of the characters that is highly unbelievable. Criminals do things in We Own the Night I don’t think they would ever dream of doing—all in the guise of moving the plot forward. For a filmmaker who prides himself on a level of ‘70s “authenticity”, not being genuine with the actions of characters is a serious affront to my absorbing the story.
We Own the Night is full of some slow boiling acting (Phoenix gives an intense, full throttle performance), it’s chock full of ‘70s goodness but the plot construction annoyed me to no end! It’s a shame because there’s a good movie here but the unbelievable aspects nearly ruined all the good things. Maybe Gray’s fourth film in his tribute to the ‘70s will be the one where he puts it all together?