As with most contemporary Hollywood films, We Own the Night follows a simple enough premise to allow for a capsulated lowdown of a synopsis, suitable for a sound bite or marketing hook. Here, the plot is presumably about two brothers facing off from opposite sides of the law, coming to grips and to blows in the urban jungle of Brooklyn, while their stern-but-wise father tries to corral them toward the right path. When the cast is this strong we can expect plenty to keep us awake and attuned.
Alas, the promise and the problem with writer-director James Gray’s new film is that it yearns toward a thicker plot beyond the sound bite, a narrative spread with more complexity. Mark Wahlberg is the “good” son, who has followed his father (Robert Duvall) into the police force, while Joaquin Phoenix is the prodigal son, but not really the “bad” seed at all, just a hedonist who finds himself in some nasty company. (Read: the blood-strewn landscape of the Russian mafia.)
But we don’t end up caring so much about such incidental details. Symptomatic of the film’s core failing-lack of interest in and empathy for the characters-certain scenes stick in the mind long after we’ve forgotten the names, ranks, and kinks of those involved. Gray skillfully summons up the true street grit of criminal byways in late ‘80s Brooklyn, leading us into a chilling encounter with a secret drug factory or depositing us in a hauntingly visceral, rain-spattered roller coaster of a car chase, with guns blazing below elevated trains.
It comes wrapped in grittily beautiful framing, including an atmospheric-yet-tense finale in the burning brush. Such hints of cinematic bravura suggest that, had the parts and the bold acting been integrated with a more artful whole, this could have been a powerful, Scorsese-esque urban drama. Instead, we get a film which ends up feeling like a “picture,” in the classic B-movie genre sense, in the age of the sound bite.