Reviews

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)
Website

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.

5

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.