We Own the Night is a moralistic movie made in the same vein as other cop dramas — meaning that it’s a particularly jarring film. However, this style is appropriate for the genre that these filmmakers are working in.
The story deals with two brothers who represent the different spectrums of New York City nightlife. There’s Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg), a cop on the force whose latest efforts have been concentrated on trying to stop the Russian Mafia from their drug deals. There’s Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub owner who ironically enough is friends with some of those drug dealers. And there’s their father, Burt (Robert Duvall), who is the chief of police.
The closeness of this family ultimately results in an unrelenting drama involving the Russian mafia. When mobsters threaten his family, Bobby must figure out if he’ll side with his blood relatives or with his Russian “family.”
We Own the Night is very well made in a calculating way; the most brutal and depressing scenes are the most visually effective. This manipulative style actually adds to the thrilling moments. Scenes that show Bobby being snared in a barrage of bullets during a bust or following a car in a devastating chase are so excruciatingly suspenseful that they are beautifully executed. It’s ironic that these scenes all involve brutality, but that’s the genre that director James Gray is working within.
Despite the flawed nature of the film, there are some terrific performances. Wahlberg is basically playing the same cop that he did in The Departed. The difference is that Joseph is more disassociated and emotionally removed from everyone. That’s exactly the way Wahlberg plays him; he gives a very straight-forward performance. However, Wahlberg does manage to show some passion in his role.
Speaking of passion, Phoenix gives an intensely ardent performance. That’s the difference between Bobby and the rest of his family; he’s passionate while they are not. Phoenix’s performance is the main reason for why this particular cop melodrama feels different. His hooded look of despair when he’s interrogating someone, for instance, saves the often-meaningless scene that he appears in, making it worthwhile to watch.
It helps that Phoenix looks like he came straight out of the late ’80s, with his dark bedraggled hair and amiable disposition. This translates well to his character because he can’t stand the fact that his family constantly puts him down for having fun. Later on, that smile goes from his face, yet he still retains a torn look. Phoenix gives the film different shades of complexity.
The conflict in the movie is just as intense as the violence that we as an audience watch, and that’s why the earlier parts of the film were enjoyable. The fights between the two brothers are very realistic and excitingly intense.
But the filmmakers turn We Own the Night into a piece that’s somber and cold to the touch. The unrelenting sense of doom that pervades this family is depressing to watch. Starting from the moment when a dire chain of events start, the rest of the film just feels depressing, but too simplistic. That’s why the audience can see what’s going to happen from a mile away.
A lack of logic throughout the plot doesn’t help the film, either. It’s offensive to the audience that the filmmakers make us care about Bobby without giving him a sense of intelligence. The fact that the character becomes a vigilante and joins the police force in order to get revenge, instead of grieving in the proper way, is also irritating.
Although it has strong performances and the potential for gritty drama, We Own the Night is sensationalistic and rather basic. What could have been the next great cop film fails to follow through completely.