In 2014 James Gray stopped by the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and both spoke longingly about their love of Hollywood cinema. The movies of the seventies came up in the conversation, as they often do with B.E.E podcasts, and they were of course lovingly admired. In looking back at James Gray’s first three features, Little Odessa (1995), The Yards (2000) and 2007’s We Own the Night, it’s clear to see that the seventies crime features that adorned the era were certainly favourites for Gray. It’s hard not to look at the sombre tones of Little Odessa or gruff, rough-edged notes of The Yards and not think of The Godfather (1972). We Own the Night feels like an expansion of the moods and themes expressed within Gray’s first two films.
Set in the late eighties, We Own the Night, like Gray’s previous films, takes place in the Borough of Brooklyn, New York. It centres itself around brash nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs the successful El Caribe nightclub, which is in turn financed and owned by fur dealer Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov) Bobby’s decision to run the nightclub and absorb himself into a self-indulgent lifestyle with his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) has set a distance between himself and his father; NYPD Deputy Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) and brother Captain Joseph (Mark Wahlberg). The family clash when it’s noted that known drug dealer Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov) frequents Bobby’s club. Nezhinski knows nothing of Bobby’s Law Enforcement connections and Bobby has a strong wish to stay a natural party, but a failed drug bust causes a chain of events to lead to Bobby’s lifestyle to unravel piece by piece.
The film is an accumulation of what Gray had learnt at that point. We Own the Night is a melting pot of Eastern European immigration, frayed family ties and legitimacy seeking. In Little Odessa, we saw these through the eye of Tim Roth’s ice-cold killer. In The Yards, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix had already fought their first-round bout of similar conflicts. Much like the grubby crime films of the 70’s Gray steeps each of his films in macho posturing. Stone-faced men mutter in muted tones. Questions of loyalty crop up in each scene. It’s in We Own the Night however where everything seems to fit better than the previous inclinations. Gray still imbues his movie with the same deliberate pacing, and his narratives at this point, still lack the surprises that his peers can bring to a crime thriller.
What We Own the Night brings across, however, is efficiency. Working with both Phoenix and Walhberg once more, Gray harnesses the energy of both performers with a clearer focus than their previous collaboration. The relationship is more strained. More volatile. The addition of a stoic Robert Duvall not only reminds viewers of the muscular features of the seventies (see also James Caan and Faye Dunaway in The Yards) but also amps the tension with his blunt readings of the dialogue. It’s is in this trio of actors we see Gray as a director of actors above most things. Until Two Lovers in 2008, Gray’s films were decent showcases for how well he directs men. Granted he’s working with well-established workers but the performances of Wahlberg, Phoenix and Duvall, while not top tier displays are certainly enjoyable additions to their cannon. Both Phoenix and Wahlberg play to their strengths. Phoenix’s knock around charm plays well with Walhberg’s rough straight man.
Gray’s early films revel in the aggressions of impressionable young men caught between the right and wrong side of the tracks. Often their gravely spoken conversations are either bathed in Gordon Willis style shadows or have their lead characters have their conflicted thoughts in steady slow zooms. However, it’s within these male orientated circles we release that Gray’s earlier films are not just “angry young men” films. They are films which don’t appear to know what to do with their women. While it is true that Gray’s film isn’t really about women, what we find it some well known, well-cast actresses caught within narratives that simply do not have any time for them. Charlize Theron, Moira Kelly and Vanessa Redgrave could be very easily considered “fridged” in The Yards and Little Odessa respectively, with their characters often ending up on the slab for very little emotional gain, but maximum male agency.
In the same way, We Own The Night bulks up’s Gray’s skill set in visual craft and direction of men, Eva Mendes’ role of Amada embodies the issues that come with his earlier films. It’s a role in which Mendes does very little but personify the devil may care lifestyle of Bobby, look great and then be dismissed for the male character to feel sad. While that statement may seem quite flippant, the character of Armada’s most memorable moments is in the film’s opening where she initiates sex by fondling herself and the scene in which in which she doesn’t appear because her frustrations of where Bobby’s choices have taken them. Compared to how well Gray illustrates Wahlberg’s trajectory from a pivotal moment involving his character getting shot, and there is a feeling of being short-changed.
Its release in 2007 saw We Own the Night coming out after both The Departed (2006) and Eastern Promises (2007), two films which have two particularly masterful filmmakers creating distinctive narratives, not only of the richness of the landscapes they inhabit but with female roles which are far more conflicted and complicated. Add to that the way that both Scorsese and Cronenberg are making similar films involving the duplicity of men who shift between moral margins with the style and grace of two filmmakers who have been working since the seventies, it’s easy to see where Gray’s film struggles in comparison
This doesn’t mean We Own The Night is not an entertaining endeavour. It doesn’t hold much in the way of surprise, even its smoke-filled climax feels like Gray trying to build upon his already impressive shootout at the end of Little Odessa. It is still fascinating to watch Gray once again peek into the lives of these dark men and the choices they make. We Own the Night is not a perfect crime film, but it’s a solidly built and well-performed expansion of the filmmakers earlier themes.