We Own the Night confirms James Gray’s position as a major American film director. It’s been a few years since his second movie, The Yards, a suggestive, gorgeously photographed crime story, and more than a decade since his precocious debut, Little Odessa. Those shy, anguished films had an enclosed, studied quality, a timidity coupled with a loamish straining for operatic intensity that left them unresolved but hard to forget.
With this third work, Gray sets all inhibitions aside and begins confidently with a series of black-and-white cop photos set to melancholy saxophone followed by the image of uninhibitedly sexy party girl Amada (Eva Mendes) pleasuring herself on a ‘70s-style gold couch. Her boyfriend Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) enters the frame and caresses her thigh, then her breast; there’s a cut to them waiting to kiss, with Amada’s tongue fluttering in the air, then a cut of Bobby pulling down her top, so that one of her breasts pops out—all set to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” This arousing vision of a warm erotic paradise, unrepentantly heightened by the use of drugs, haunts the rest of the movie, which deals with raw loss, the chill of betrayal, and the opposing institutions of the mob and the police force.
After the sensual overload of the first scenes, We Own the Night seems slightly stalled and morose as the main conflict is set up between Phoenix’s happily dissolute club manager and his disapproving cop father, Burt (Robert Duvall), and cowed cop brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg). But Gray keeps his attention on telling details, visually contrasting the rich, delicious food Bobby gets when he visits his Russian mob bosses with the cafeteria macaroni and cheese at a policeman’s gathering. It’s in small things like this that Gray tips his hand, slowly revealing the film’s theme: how rigid, colorless morality drains away all the pleasure out of life. Duvall’s corny old man fighting the drug wars would be seen as a hero in many other American movies, but Gray gradually and subtly reveals him as a tyrant and joy-killer who destroys the lives of his sons, a flatfoot Don Corleone to Phoenix’s brooding, implosive Michael.
Gray is an obsessive stylist, and the images in his movies seem to question and answer each other, in whispers; thus, Faye Dunaway’s steely mama falters as she tries to move forward toward the end of The Yards just as stone-faced Duvall sinks to his knees after being told Wahlberg has been injured (later in this film, another old man will be brought to his knees, but the authority figures retain their debilitating power in Gray’s work, regardless of the positions of weakness he forces on them). Vanessa Redgrave’s dying mother reaches out from her sickbed in Little Odessa while Mendes’s Amada retreats to her motel bed here, her life-giving sexuality extinguished by needless suffering.
As the film builds and deepens, Gray dramatizes the demoralizing sort of physical and psychic helplessness that was one of Hitchcock’s lifelong themes, nowhere more upsettingly than in a long car chase sequence where Bobby is terrorized by pounding rain on his windshield, guns being brandished from other cars on the road, and Amada’s screams in the backseat. During the climactic shoot-out, Wahlberg’s Joseph falls to the ground, lightheaded with fear as he stares into the eyes of a slain fellow officer. These visions of vertigo add up to a highly convincing portrayal of existential dread, only slightly ameliorated by the final helpless expressions of love between the two trapped, ruined brothers. We Own the Night is ambitious, gritty, and finally elating, and it represents a large leap forward for Gray, who hopefully won’t have to wait quite so long between projects as he develops his delicate poetic vision further.