“I know that I’ll never be able to redeem myself.”
Leo, The Yards
James Gray’s early films are haunted by the inescapable pull of doubt and self-destruction. Nobody says it better than the ex-con played by Mark Wahlberg in The Yards (2000), one of many doomed young protagonists who fruitlessly try and change their destiny only to dig themselves deeper by trusting the wrong people.
Since Gray’s blue-collar characters are workers first and dreamers second, many of their violent and turbulent travails offer a bleak examination of the survival instincts that often fail us. In the face of corruption, death, and betrayal, family may be the one constant, but the generational element of these tragedies suggests that the suffering could conceivably go on forever.
One of the great genre films from the 2000s, We Own the Night (2007) is a particularly sobering example of these motifs. It effectively combines a sweepingly intimate style of melodrama with bare-bones crime film aesthetics revealing how the possibility of redemption is just another fantasy, like being a hero cop or an untouchable Manhattan power broker. Notions of heroism and villainy are often proven inadequate because to Gray, all that matters is the fallout produced by each bad decision.
Featuring an opening act centered around dueling experiences and settings (bars vs. police stations, Blondie and David Bowie pop hits vs. Wojciech Kilar’s tragic score), We Own the Night establishes two different aesthetic worlds destined to collide. Bobby Grusinsky (Joaquin Phoenix) runs a highly successful nightclub and seems to have a bright future as a mover and shaker in New York’s social scene. His brother Joe (Wahlberg), an ambitious career detective, has recently been promoted to lead a new narcotics task force out of Brighton Beach. Both men are high on their own burgeoning success without really considering how it will impact the other person’s life.
This all changes when Joe begins targeting dangerous Russian drug dealers operating out of Bobby’s free-wheeling club El Caribe, and the brothers are forced to reconcile deep-seeded family tensions that have been dividing them for years. Things escalate during and after an audacious raid by the cops meant to shake the criminals’ confidence. But it does just the opposite, and local Russian kingpin Vadim (Alex Veadov) decides to start targeting the cops in order to send a message.
This setup is essential because We Own the Night begins to differentiate between institutionalized fear and power that law enforcement banks on to keep crime at bay, and the scourge of brazen criminals who no longer fear the police. This potentially epic shift in power dynamics takes place on one level of the film, but Gray’s central narrative involves Bobby’s escalating involvement in the investigation after Joe is gunned down by a masked assassin. It’s an event that alters his worldview, and in a sense begins the radicalization process of becoming a cop, something he and his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes) joke about early on.
Bobby’s gravitation toward cop ideology has nothing to do with the kinetics of genre or righteousness. It has everything to do with his rediscovery of family, feeling connected to something on a deeper level, and riding shotgun with the men who’ve always wanted him along for the hunt. Bobby’s legendary cop father Burt (Robert Duvall) often bemoans Bobby’s softness during the first act of We Own the Night, but gradually begins to see him as someone willing to risk it all for law and order.
Underneath that sense of pride and loyalty is a constant questioning of purpose, something Joe traumatically experiences in every scene after being shot in the face by one of Vadim’s men. That bullet not only shatters his jaw, but the very cowboy persona that defined his creed. Wahlberg’s sad and devastating performance subtly unearths these conflicts of self mostly in moments of solitude.
The film itself is also a case study in restraint, how the absence of sound can make action scenes and car chases more immersive and impressionistic. When Bobby embarks on his failed sting operation inside Vadim’s cavernous stash house, Gray plays with shadow and space to convey someone passing over into another world. When the cops come rushing in guns blazing it’s only because the eerily quiet Vadim has noticed Bobby’s heavy breathing and marked him as an informant.
Later on, Gray’s mastery of cinematic aesthetics comes to an apex during the rain-soaked car chase that takes place entirely from the vantage point of Bobby’s perspective as he tries to survive crashing 18-wheelers, head-on collisions, and shotgun blasts shredding his doors. The diminishing of diegetic sounds mixed with the pristinely beautiful grey-toned images and elemental downpour is harrowing, mostly because it muffles the very tropes (pops from a distant pistol, screeching tires) of a sequence that would normally be loud and chaotic.
There are very few moments when Gray chooses bombast in We Own the Night. Which make its scathing themes about indifference and loyalty all the more fascinating. Bobby’s a babe in the woods thinking he could ever remain neutral. Life always forces him to pick a side, and there will be consequences either way. During their first big scene together, Burt tells him, “Sooner or later, you’re either gonna be with us, or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers. This is like a war out there.” In the moment, Bobby scoffs at his father’s flair for melodrama. But We Own the Night slowly and masterfully needles him into understanding just how prickly and life-altering that statement turns out to be.
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