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.