Joaquin Phoenix may very well be the greatest actor of his generation. For years, he has played fascinating and compelling characters in a variety of brilliant films from some of the best filmmakers in the business. Two of his regular contributors always bring out the best in him. Paul Thomas Anderson, who brought out Joaquin’s greatest performance to date in The Master and had fun with him in Inherent Vice. The other is James Gray, a director who has some incredible talent but has not quite yet broken through into the mainstream. He has done four films with Joaquin, and has shown a very vulnerable side to the actor in films such as Two Lovers. Perhaps their greatest contribution together is We Own the Night, a gritty and dark throwback to the epic New Hollywood police dramas that gave people like Gene Hackman and Al Pacino their careers. While never reaching the heights of brilliance that films like Serpico, The French Connection and Dirty Harry did, We Own the Night is still a compelling and exciting crime drama.
Phoenix plays Bobby Grusinsky, who goes by his mother’s maiden name of “Green” to avoid the fact that he comes from a generation of police officers. His father (Robert Duvall) is the Deputy Chief of Police, and his brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is a newly-minted captain of the force. Bobby, however, is the black sheep of the family. While not doing anything illegal or immoral, he simply stays away from the law and order side of his family, preferring his job as the manager of a nightclub in Brighton Beach. When it is discovered a Russian drug cartel is operating right out of that very club, Bobby is forced to work alongside his family and the police to try and bring down the killer mob, which is a lot more difficult than what it appears.
Of course, this story doesn’t sound very unique or in any way a remarkable and different piece of cinema. It isn’t – the story is a dime a dozen. However, what makes We Own the Night so compelling is the underlying messages. The film, on the surface, is about crime and the police force. However, at the core, it is a story about family. Bobby is a man who loves his family, he just doesn’t want anything to do with them. He isn’t a coward, he just prefers not to be drawn into the confusing and often very dangerous world of the police force. This decision has made him unpopular with his father and brother, who don’t take him seriously, even when he does concede his pride and agree to help them bring down the mob. However, he does show the strength and love he has for his family by giving up his facade of being just another man who doesn’t need to get involved in drug trafficking (on the side of the dealers or the police), and does his part to help, not because he feels he needs to contribute to the destruction of crime, but instead because he wants to do it for his family and their protection.
It is obvious that Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance in the film, so I won’t rag on about him here, other than saying while it isn’t his best performance, he is still very solid in the role, and a lot more vulnerable and sensitive, as opposed to some of his other roles as a closed and private man. Special mention has to go to Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg, who take thankless roles and make them interesting. Duvall was around when films like this were very popular, so to see him play the role of the stern, older character feels like his career has gone full circle. While Duvall has never had the charisma of his contemporaries like Jack Nicholson and Christopher Walken, he is still a cinema icon and a brilliant actor whose understated and quiet acting style add a lot to any film, especially one like We Own the Night. Mark Wahlberg isn’t given enough to do here other than play the “good brother”. His role as Joseph, a sensitive but dedicated cop is a stark contrast to his role in The Departed. The trio of Phoenix, Duvall and Wahlberg is one already too interesting to pass up, and with a film like We Own the Night, their talents are on full display.
I thought We Own the Night was a great film. It is a very stylish, but still incredibly gritty, film that serves as both a throwback and homage to the classic police dramas of the 1970s, and as a compelling crime thriller on its own in the present day. It may not become an instant classic, but it is still a really entertaining, thrilling and fascinating film that has the right balance of intelligence and brawn to make it entertaining, but also very smart.