If you’re a critic—or any kind of serious movie-lover—you should embrace the idea of what James Gray tries to do. His two previous features—1995’s Little Odessa and 2000’s The Yards—both found a distinctive New York setting for gritty, character-based dramas about loyalty and moral choices. They were blue-collar, working-class sorts of movies: You’ve got a job to do, you do it, and you don’t worry about making it look pretty.
The problem is that while we might embrace that idea, it feels at times as though Gray himself is only embracing the idea as well. His latest effort, We Own the Night, finds Gray once again creating a compelling situation, but finding himself confused about how to deal with the people in that situation as more than abstract plot necessities.
Set in 1988 Brooklyn, the story follows nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix). The black sheep in a multi-generational family of New York cops, Bobby separates himself from the Grusinsky clan by using his mother’s maiden name. But when his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is shot in connection with his narcotics investigation of a Russian gangster named Vadim (Alex Veadov) who frequents his club, Bobby allows himself to become an insider informant for the police department, risking himself and his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) in the process.
Gray sets up the kind of fundamental character tensions that should drive any effective drama with a kind of ruthless efficiency. We see Bobby’s relationships with Amada and his club’s Russian owner as surrogate family connections. We get scenes demonstrating the friction between Bobby and Joseph over their respective life choices. And we watch Bobby shift his allegiances back to his biological family, potentially alienating Amada in the process. This no-frills approach to storytelling carries over to some of his set pieces, as well, each of which crackles with an intensity you’d love to see in every action film.
But We Own the Night somehow never carries that intensity over into characters that live and breathe. The entire story feels like a three-hour epic squeezed into two hours. We Own the Night feels technically accomplished yet emotionally stunted. There’s a word for that kind of filmmaking, no matter how many Oscar-nominated actors are reading the lines: workmanlike.