Booed at the Cannes film festival (always a sign that a movie has good energy), James Gray's pulverizing crime drama is unafraid to put its passions right out where it's easy to mock them. We Own the Night is defiantly, refreshingly unhip. Set in Brooklyn in the late 1980s, the film proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. Joaquin Phoenix is electrifying and then some as club manager Bobby Green (changed from Grusinsky), a drug-happy party boy with a sizzling Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes, for whom sizzle comes naturally), and a brother, Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, recessive and riveting), who wants to put him out of business. Joseph is a cop, as is their deputy-chief dad, Burt (Robert Duvall in full grit). But in this contest of who owns the night, it's not the police or the Russian mob that squeezes Bobby in a vise. It's fate. That's right, a concept as old as the Greeks. Bobby has little room in his life for his disapproving brother and father until a pro forma raid on his club places his family at risk. Everyone's life changes, and not for the better. With long takes and overhead shots that reduce humans to playthings of destiny, Gray's reach is daringly Shakespearean. For some critics, it's just conventional TV pap with delusions of grandeur and a lazy regard for period details. Or even more risible: fascist propaganda for a police state. You be the judge. Gray's first two films, Little Odessa and The Yards, threw me at first. It might take a second or third viewing to see what he's after. It's worth the effort. The Queens-born Gray is a certified maverick. Some say he's the basis for Billy Walsh, the take-no-prisoners director on his friend Wahlberg's Entourage HBO series. Does it all work? Hardly. Gray's excesses can be infuriating. But watch him pit his characters against outrageous fortune, thrillingly disguised as a white-knuckled car chase in the rain, and you know you're in the presence of a born filmmaker.
From The Archives Issue 270: July 27, 1978