Monday, October 8, 2007

We Own the Night (2007, James Gray) [8]

One of the charms of James Gray's films is his unabashed love for classical style. Gray has never been one to rely on narrative tricks or show-offy direction, grooving instead on sturdy, unhurried storytelling, handsome cinematography, and atmosphere to burn. So it is with his finest film yet, which falls under the Howard Hawks rule for a successful film- three great scenes, no bad scenes. I'll leave the pleasures of the three scenes for you to discover, except to say that I find it admirable that Gray, who can shoot a crackerjack scene of action and suspense as well as practically any filmmaker currently working, doesn't allow the film to get bogged down in action. We Own the Night is at heart a drama about family- the somewhat dysfunctional family at its center, the police who protect their own, the Russian mafia who welcomes a trusted surrogate son as long as he's not a risk. It's also a world of men in the old-fashioned sense, men who keep their own counsel, who bottle up their emotions even at the most difficult of times, who recognize the value of duty and loyalty and keeping your mouth shut and ears open. There are few stars of the younger generation who can pull off characters like this, and it's a credit to Mark Wahlberg that he manages to pull it off from the get-go, and to Joaquin Phoenix that he can convincingly and seamlessly show his character changing from a hard-partying, independent-minded youth into something resembling Gray's concept of the old-school "man." I wasn't quite buying his character's naiveté in being blind to the club owner's mob connections, but that's a minor quibble. Gray keeps most of the film at a simmer, but when he turns up the heat, We Own the Night cooks. The film's title was taken from the NYPD's motto in the late 1980s, which is when the film is set, and Gray perfectly captures the gray, dingy New York of the period, back before it got a fresh new coat of PR paint. In addition, the tension between law enforcement and the crime element at the dawn of the War on Drugs is surprisingly palpable. Gray isn't interested in a neon-colored VH1-style nostalgia trip dress-up party, but in portraying a time and place where people actually lived.

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