Notable Festivals: Cannes (In Competition), San Sebastian
In 2007, director James Gray released his third feature film, WE OWN THE NIGHT. It was the first film of his that I had ever seen, and I distinctly remember the vintage-inspired theatrical poster. At the time, I thought it was one of the coolest posters I had ever seen, let alone the coolest title I had ever heard of. When I finally got around to watching the film, I confess that it wasn’t as exciting as I had built it up to be in my mind.
In examining Gray’s filmography for the purposes of the Directors Series, I was interested to see how my own personal growth as well as a wider exposure to cinema would inform a second viewing five years on. While it’s certainly Gray’s most ambitious, sprawling effort to date, it has its fair share of flaws. Ultimately, however, it holds up much better than I remembered.
The year is 1988, and the drug trade is a well-known presence on the gritty streets of Brooklyn. WE OWN THE NIGHTcenters on the Grusinsky family, a respected immigrant family with a rich lineage in law enforcement. There’s the patriarch, Burt (Robert Duvall), a tough old bastard with an unwavering commitment to the law. Following in his father’s footsteps is his son, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg)—an ambitious young man and a rising star in his department. Together, they are committed to ridding their streets of the drug plague.
And then there’s Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), the black sheep of the family. He’s a slick, confident nightclub manager, and feels no compulsion to be a law-abiding citizen himself. He spends his days with a rough crowd of hustlers and dealers, and his nights at his club in the arms of his beautiful girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). The Grusinsky family status quo is interrupted when Joseph is gunned down in the street by armed thugs with sympathies to Bobby’s operations. Horrified by the violence he indirectly inflicted on his own brother, Bobby agrees to wear a wire and help bring down the people responsible. This noble act begins a cascade of events that will inevitably lead to his redemption as a man of the law.
WE OWN THE NIGHT marks Gray’s second collaboration with Phoenix, and their strong working relationship results in a subtle, nuanced performance that allows us to sympathize with a salacious character like Bobby. It’s captivating to watch his confidence waver as the plot thickens, and Phoenix guides his character’s arc to a dramatically compelling conclusion with nary a false note. Wahlberg is also present for round two with Gray, sharing a similar kind of wary brotherly dynamic that they gave to Gray’s 1999 film, THE YARDS. His transformation from a slightly cocky blowhard to a haunted young man provides for an elegant counterpoint to the main storyline. In their scenes together, Phoenix and Wahlberg chew their scenes apart with a power and grasp of the material that hasn’t been seen in movies since 70’s-era Scorsese.
Also worth mentioning are solid performances by Duvall and Mendes. Duvall, a well-established and respected character actor gives the film an air of gravitas and prestige. He barely even has to lift a finger—his mere presence instantly elevates the material. Mendes takes what could otherwise be a bland, underwritten “girlfriend” role and makes it sing with bold choices. Watch the opening scene of the film to see what I mean.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Joaquin Bacai-Asay, Gray expands upon his established look by using the resources that come with higher budgets and skilled craftspeople. Shot on 35mm film at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Gray and Bacai-Asay preserve Gray’s signature brown/black /yellow color palette, high contrast and subdued tones. The film is Gray’s first period piece, and while he doesn’t give it a distinctively period feel, he does imbue the film with a subtly aged patina.
One thing I’ve noticed about Gray’s visual style is his embrace of light temperatures found in natural fixtures like sodium vapor streetlamps or fluorescent bulbs as part of his look. What’s colloquially called “bastard amber”—that unholy orange glare of sodium vapor streetlights—becomes a rich, elegant yellow that gives warmth to the night. Conversely, scenes under fluorescent lights—like those of the police station—are skewed heavily towards the green/blue tones and create an oppressive, cold atmosphere. By employing light sources different from those of standard film lights, he creates a high-key lighting setup that looks natural and moody.
Gray’s camerawork also shows a subtle development. By utilizing a strategic variety of handheld, dolly, zoom and static shots, as well as periodically incorporating a stylized slow motion for effect, he creates a brooding minimalism and tension. His sound design also follows suit—an immersive, naturalistic mix is complemented by well-placed moments of directorial flair, such as the use of muffled voices and a high-pitched tone to signify hearing loss and disorientation after an explosion.
The score, provided by Wojciech Kilar, is minimal and unobtrusive. Kilar crafts a subtle soundscape of smooth strings and melancholy chords. For WE OWN THE NIGHT, Gray makes more substantial use of a number of source cues assembled into an eclectic mix of music ranging from disco to 80’s pop. Their presence gives a cocaine-fueled energy to the proceedings and firmly establishes the story’s time period in the absence of conspicuous visual cues.
Gray’s films have always painted richly detailed portraits of distinct cultures and worlds, and WE OWN THE NIGHT is no exception. Beginning with a somber prologue montage consisting of black-and-white period photographs of New York’s finest on the job, Gray makes the central conceit of his story clear—A man’s commitment to his job and to his family is sometimes the same thing. He paints the police as a family in their own right, responsible to each other and everyone. The code of honor and family carry as much weight, if not more, as the code of law— in Joseph’s own words: “it’s better to be judged by twelve than killed by six”.
While the Grusinskys appear to be predominantly Irish or Polish in their heritage, they are part of a larger family of people coming from all creeds and nations. Their religious customs and rituals are based around social gatherings like rank promotion celebrations, or worse—funerals. It is this world that Phoenix’s character spends the movie trying to become a part of, only to find that he’s been one of them all along.
Gray shows considerable growth as a filmmaker with WE OWN THE NIGHT. He doubles down on his signature stylistic elements—all-lowercase credits, dark shadows in the eyes as the way to obscure truth—but he also shows that he’s capable of larger, thrilling setpieces. A mid-film car chase set in pouring rain is one of the film’s highlights, proving that Gray can stage action like the best of them. Indeed, there is far more action to be found in the film, complemented by a faster pace (courtesy of editor John Axelrad) and a cinematically compelling story.
WE OWN THE NIGHT isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an incredibly strong and considered crime drama. It stands shoulder to shoulder with any one of Gray’s best works, and will be most likely remembered as the film of his that is most accessible to a wide audience.
WE OWN THE NIGHT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Sony Pictures.