We Own the Night

You can see -- though the brothers take a few more scenes to catch up -- that each envies the other: Joe wants Bobby's seeming independence, Bobby wants daddy's approval.

We Own the Night

Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes, Tony Musante, Alex Veadov
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-12-14 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-10-12 (General release)

In Brooklyn, 1988, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) thinks he has it all. Swaggering around the neighborhood where he manages a successful night club, he's assured of respect, money, and a future with the Russian mob. He's changed his name from Grusinsky to Green, partly to distance himself from his super-cop father Burt (Robert Duvall) and goody-two-shoes brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg), and partly to sound more "American." Best of all, he has a hot babe of a glorious girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), who's hot, tough, and Puerto Rican -- all kinds of ways to push dad's buttons.

This macho melodrama forms the center of We Own the Night. Bobby thrills himself (and apparently Amada) with sex romps on a sofa and imagines his bad behavior can go on uncurtailed ("Nobody at the club," he says, "needs to know anything about my family"). But when he feels compelled to attend a police ceremony honoring Joe, it appears that Bobby hasn't really got the fam out of his system. Or vice versa: at the party Burt takes his son aside to invite him yet again to rejoin the fold. "Sooner or later," Burt says, "You're going to be with us or with the drug dealers. It's like a war out there."

That would be the vaunted war on drugs, and indeed, Bobby is soon caught between the two sides his father has so neatly laid out. While Bobby resents his family (no mother in sight), he admires the Russians: they seem to adore their children and look after one another. Little does he know that they're like any other family, dysfunctional and spiteful, even abusive. Bobby's not especially quick to see this, and so he basks in warm fuzzies and cake when he visits the home of his grandfatherly employer, Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov), believing he's accepted and even beloved. "I'm thinking about expanding," says Buzhayev, "You could run it." Bobby fairly bubbles with enthusiasm: "Why not try Manhattan?" Mrs. Buzhayev (Elena Solovey) smiles. Her husband nods. It appears that Bobby's on his way.

Not so fast. The venal side of the family is visibly embodied by Buzhayev's nephew Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov), who runs drugs through the club Bobby manages,. When Bobby refuses to "inform" on this business, the cops storm into the club and stage a showy raid, slamming Bobby's head on the bar along with Vadim's. Booked and briefly jailed, Bobby confronts Joe at the station, their fretful rivalry painfully displayed in a place where Bobby has no chance of winning. More tellingly, the ferocity of their fight suggests that Bobby's actually not getting the love he so plainly craves from his substitute-brother and sidekick down at the club, the ignominiously named Jumbo (Danny Hoch). You can see -- though the brothers take a few more scenes to catch up -- that each envies the other: Joe wants Bobby's seeming independence, Bobby wants daddy's approval.

Mark Wahlberg (left) as Joseph Grusinsky and Robert Duvall (right) as Burt Grusinsky

The crisis that forces Bobby to make a new, if predictable, choice comes shortly after (it involves a cop's hospitalization and a bizarre ceremonial visit from former Mayor Ed Koch, as himself). Suddenly sobered up, Bobby determines to go "undercover," deep into Vadim's business. It is notably strange that not one of his or Vadim's bad boy friends has a clue that Bobby is literally related to the police. Even if you accept that major detail, Vadim's tough-guy boasting to the very man he should not be talking to is overkill. "The cops," he tells Bobby (in thickly accented American slang), "They ain't no problem. Cut the head off, the body will fall." He can't know how apt this corporeal metaphor will be, as the point for Bobby and the film is the inescapable reality of blood. No matter any effort to redefine yourself on your own terms, you are your family, and vice versa.

Almost lost amid Bobby's moral shuffle is Amada. Initially, she stands by her man, absorbing his worry and rage, even his about-face on the thrilling night life she obviously enjoys and quite embodies. She accepts, with some bristling, her new position as subordinate, dressed down and relatively dowdy. She acts out her growing resentment by sneaking a visit to her mother's apartment, suggesting just briefly that another sort of family, where women must make decisions, exists. But this is plainly outside the movie's focus, and Bobby's assertion of his will -- admittedly born of a concern for the safety of Amada and her mother, for it's clear the Russians don't fool around -- is rough and scary. Her resistance is the movie's most convincing instance of a world outside, a world the cops are supposedly "protecting."

Joaquin Phoenix as Bobby Green

Still, Amada agrees to yet another change of location (the cops are all about safe houses and 24-hour guards). And here the film coughs up its most exciting set-piece, a car chase in the rain. Though it's not completely clear why Bobby and his father are traveling in separate vehicles, the result is an entertainingly careening shoot-out with a couple of Russians with large guns. It's a little disturbing that Amada is reduced to whimpering in the backseat while her man reveals his manly stuff, but it's more devastating that this action -- shot, digitized, and edited with verve -- is the last compelling bit in the movie.

Bobby's decision-making throughout is operatic (with grand gestures and tears and sensational lighting), but also crude and flatfooted. When Amada pleads with him to stop, to consider consequences for her and her family, he's ready with the most obvious non-answer, "I have to do this." He thinks it's about right and wrong, that he's finally come to see which is which. But it's more plainly about fathers and sons, brothers and vengeance, and finding that fiery climax. And like most everything else in We Own the Night, that climax is exceedingly literal.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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