Ask a group of serious film buffs who they consider to be the hottest young (or at least youngish) American director currently working and you’re liable to get a truly diverse array of responses. The Tarantino die-hards are still out there, no less fervent than they were back in 1994. Zodiac recently brought David Fincher back into vogue. I can guarantee that the Anderson Wars will quickly break out, pitting worshippers of Wes against disciples of Paul Thomas. But so long as you’re surveying Americans, one name you’re exceedingly unlikely to hear is James Gray. For one thing, relatively few people saw Gray’s previous two movies, Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000); those who did see them tend to consider him a minor talent, notable mostly for his authentic portraits of blue-collar New York neighborhoods. In France, however, James Gray is widely considered a genius, sadly unappreciated in his own country. Gray’s new film, We Own the Night, played in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, receiving raves from the local press and shrugs from pretty much everybody else. Do they know something we don’t?
Not really. What the French are responding to, I think, is a certain earnest classicism in Gray’s work—almost a squareness, even. He’s one of the only current American filmmakers whose movies lack even a hint of postmodern playfulness or irony; despite the absence of fedoras, you can easily imagine them as relics from earlier decades. We Own the Night—the title, believe it or not, derives from an actual NYPD slogan of the late ’80s, when the film is set—stars Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix (who were both in The Yards as well) as brothers on opposite sides of the law: Wahlberg’s stolid, forthright Joe has followed their hardass police-chief father (Robert Duvall) into blue, while Phoenix’s laid-back, fun-loving Bobby runs a Brooklyn nightclub that’s become the hot spot for scary Russian mobsters. When Joe is gunned down by one of them, Bobby reluctantly agrees to go undercover, at which point We Own the Night reveals itself as a sort of reverse Godfather: Instead of the good son who gets sucked into the family’s criminal enterprise against his will, we get a black sheep who tries to save the farm.
Not a bad idea, except that Gray has an unfortunate tendency to spell everything out in clunky capital letters. Duvall’s captain has a way with colorful aphorisms—“If you piss in your pants,” he notes dryly at one point, “you won’t stay warm forever”—but the film’s dialogue is otherwise almost painfully literal, stating ideas and themes as starkly as a Cliff’s Notes chapter summary. And while Phoenix and Wahlberg can be superb actors, they’re both superb in a modern, anti-iconic way that works against the grain of Gray’s conception. Wahlberg, saddled with the less interesting role, simply voids himself of all personality—an approach that’s both admirable and a bit dull, especially coming so soon after his foul-mouthed pit bull in The Departed. Phoenix, by contrast, engages in a lot of Methody squirming and fidgeting, which only serves to underscore how thinly drawn the character ultimately is. What was needed here were contemporary versions of guys like Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda—actors capable of holding our attention while doing very little. Good luck finding them, though.
Surprisingly, the most memorable scenes in We Own the Night are an aspect with which Gray had demonstrated no previous facility: big action set pieces. If you’re a genre fan, the film’s climactic car chase, set in the midst of a torrential downpour (apparently computer-generated, but you’d never guess), may be worth the price of admission all by its lonesome; Gray uses the lack of visibility to stunning advantage, allowing us to catch only brief, appalling glimpses of a fast-moving gunfight between the staccato swipes of Bobby’s windshield-wiper blades. More nerve-wracking still is the undercover sting operation, which goes so hellaciously awry that it’s a wonder anybody within 20 square miles was left unwounded. Moments like these suggest that Gray may have been squandering his true gift, which is not for earnest macho brooding but for crazy orchestrated mayhem. Should he choose to develop it—and make a movie more than once every six or seven years—those film-buff conversations may begin citing a new name.
We Own the Night
Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes
Directed by James Gray