We Own the Night

  • 2008-02-20
  • By Adam Krowka

KEEPING THE DISTANCE: Joaquin Phoenix gets caught in the crossfire and decides to take the law into his own hands.

Director: James Gray

It's refreshing to enjoy an old school cinematic experience after so many highly stylized and hi-tech movies. "We Own the Night," written and directed by James Grey, is a 21st-century film strongly influenced by 1930s gangster films. Given the film's cinematographic style, dialogue and character development, it might have worked just as well in black and white.

The film centers on Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), the New York nightclub-managing black sheep in a police family of Captain Joe Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) and father Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Robert Duvall). Set in the late 1980's, the film opens with a series of black and white photos of NYPD officers busting gang members from the period.

Green leads a clean life in multi-ethnic New York, until his club becomes targeted by the police who are after drug lord Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov). Green gets increasingly caught up in the underworld and has to choose between his family and business. Like "The Departed," "We Own the Night" explores questions of loyalty and family but in a different and brasher emotional sense.

Most aspects of the film are deeply entrenched in old gangster films, from the structure of dialogue to the scene transitions. The mix of styles is somewhat distracting, at times moving into first person.

The cuts between scenes often occur with some symbolic words left hanging in the air. Symbolism subtly recurs throughout the film, such as a combination of a cross and Star of David worn by the villainous antagonist Nezhinski. Close attention is also paid to period detail, right down to the silhouettes of the twin towers seen from the police office window.

The scenes involving Russian dialogue are very well done, and I applaud the (rare) use of native Russian speakers, which adds depth to the character profiles. Given that the film involves a nightclub, it is fitting that the music is well chosen and cleverly used. A conspicuous lack of noise is also used brilliantly, drawing attention to the minor details and sounds over a tense background.

There are no superheroes in the film and no attempt to define good and evil in strictly black and white terms.  For those who appreciate old-style gangster films and for those looking for a story of torn souls and silhouettes, "We Own the Night" will be a delightful surprise, just like a good old tommy gun in a violin case. 

Now showing in Estonia. Opens Feb. 29 in Lithuania

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