For Criterion Consideration: James Gray’s We Own The Night

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When the world comes to a conclusion, or we as a society crumble, those who pick up the reigns will look back through the decades of cinematic history and see that while there have been historic years in cinema, very few (if any for that matter) are superior to the deepest of deep movie years, 2007.

Films like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men ruled the awards roost, while small pictures like 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days played festivals and ultimately found a home among the decade’s best pictures. However, with as deep a year as 2007 truly was (even small films like Lars And The Real Girl are better than 75% of the slop we get during any given year) some pictures have become forgotten gems. Ridley Scott had his last great film, American Gangster, that year, and while he’s made a handful of pictures since, James Gray gave the film world yet another gem during 2007, one that would fit perfectly as part of The Criterion Collection.

Entitled We Own The Night, the picture found middling success monetarily, and while critics appeared cold to the picture upon initial release, one can’t help but find the film to be an admittedly clichéd by utterly thrilling crime and familial epic that proves Grey is one of today’s foremost filmmakers.

Starring Mark Whalberg, Eva Mendes and Joaquin Phoenix, the film is set against the backdrop of late ‘80s New York, and follows the story of two brothers born from one world, but torn between the two opposing worlds they live within today. Phoenix plays Bobby, the son of a police chief that decided to go against the family business, to become a drug dependent nightclub manager. Opposite him is his brother Joseph, played by Whalberg, an officer of the law with a great track record and a growing family of his own. When his brother becomes target practice for the Russian mob, it becomes Bobby’s duty to save his brother from a world he helped drag him into.

Despite a cliché-filled screenplay (even reducing Robert Duvall to spitting various silly one liners), the film is a beautifully crafted throwback to an era where the gangster picture was truly a period-set epic piece of storytelling, with tense chases, real stakes and stellar performances.

Seven years after his second film, The Yards, We Own The Night may not be as world shattering as Gray’s true masterpiece, but it’s no less stunningly made. With a script also from Gray, this is as autuerish a picture as you’ll find. Almost histrionic levels of pure familial melodrama abound, but so do stunningly framed shots ranging from a seductive stroll down a hall by a cigarette-smoking Eva Mendes to one of the greatest car chases of this generation. Harkening back to various classic crime epics, the film blends family drama with an action film that is tense, taut and utterly engaging. Shot by Joaquin Baca-Asay (who also shot Gray’s amazing Two Lovers and the equally underrated Roger Dodger), each frame of this film is bursting with life, pairing the gorgeous color palette with superb production design by Ford Wheeler into a masterpiece of crime drama craft.

Phoenix carries the film as its lead, and does so superbly. He and Mendes’ relationship feels real and fleshed out, and Mendes turns in arguably the first really great performance of her career up to that point. She is both beautiful and quite melancholy, adding great depth to her and her relationship with Bobby. Whalberg is a solid opposing force in this world, but doesn’t do much as he’s not asked to carry the heavy lifting. This threesome is asked to carry this film, and they do so with grace and quite a bit of depth, making this a very engaging and entrancing film far beyond just its aesthetic.

Almost more a tone poem about the relationship between two brothers, We Own The Night has garnered comparisons to films dating all the way back to WB’s early crime days, and it fits that bill. A tad sloppy, Gray’s film is a perfect continuation of that era’s crime pictures, but in a body resembling that of a family drama Shakespeare would be a fan of, and in some cases even a Western.

Intrinsically a noir film, the picture is classical in its setup and its themes. We find, much like a film like Cagney’s The Public Enemy, two brothers estranged by their world views. Phoenix and Whalberg find themselves, or their characters, to be on opposite sides of the law, and universe. A family man, Whalberg’s Joseph with lives in front of him. Wife and kids at home, he’s got everything to fight for, and absolutely everything to lose. Bobby, however, is on top of the proverbial world, with a beautiful girlfriend, life on the town, and friends abound. The twist? He’s out to change it. A “good kid” at heart, you feel like he, like the kids in the fellow James Cagney film White Heat, just got in with the wrong crowd at the wrong time. However, when blood is spilled, it proves to be thicker than water as Phoenix throws everything on the line to save his brother. A truly moving portrait of the strength of family, the film is far more emotionally moving than it frankly has any right to be. Toss in a couple of generation-best chase sequences and a filmmaker behind the camera just bursting with style, We Own The Night isn’t the masterpiece that something like The Yards is, but it’s a work of a filmmaker attempting to craft something unlike anything we’ve seen today, yet entirely inspired by the films of years passed.

But the question remains: why a Criterion release, and what could we gain from one? Well, aside from the fact that the picture is a flawed, but powerful, work of an auteur, the film features top notch performances, and is a solid melodrama. Gray is a filmmaker that audiences don’t know enough about, and while he has upped the clip at which he works over the years, he’s still an unsung master director. There is a Blu-ray available, but it’s hard to come by, and frankly, the photography here deserves the best transfer it can get. A commentary already exists with Gray, but give us some new interviews and maybe even an essay, and you’ve got a release that this writer may be the only one on this planet asking for.