Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We Own the Night (2007)

Martin Scorsese once said that in Taxi Driver (1976), the reason why the camera tracks away from Robert De Niro as he tries to apologize to Cybil Shepherd was because of the cringe factor it induces. It always somehow bothered me, because I really wanted to see him acting like a complete loser on the phone. There is a scene in We Own the Night, where the camera lingers on Joaquin Phoenix and Eva Mendes as they are having a heated argument - a scene for an Academy Award nomination clip. I think the tracking shot would have served so much better. In fact, it should have been cut altogether from this abysmal film.

We Own the Night is very bad. Despite a cast made up of Phoenix, Robert Duvall, and the recently very dependable Mark Wahlberg, the film reeks of unfulfilled potential and half-baked ideas. There isn't one character you feel remotely sympathetic to. Even when (spoiler here!!!) Robert Duvall dies in a ridiculously terrible scene, there isn't one smidgen of emotion generated from me.

The characters - or lack thereof - is the biggest downfall of this film. It manages to get rid of people in ways completely devoid of meaning. Mark Wahlberg's character always excuses himself from key scenes one way or another. Eva Mendes, whose only contribution was a steamy sex scene in the beginning, disappears in the third act. What is worse is the lack of a bad guy. I'm not talking about the personification of somebody as a villain, but a force that is working against our so-called heroes.

Asinine and pointless, it is a terrible missed opportunity.

1 comment:

wheeler said...

I'm going through and reading/commenting on everything I've missed today, so I'll just respond to this one with the somewhat agreeable review I wrote last fall...

Billy Walsh Would Be Proud
We Own the Night
For about 80 of its 117minute running time, We Own the Night is everything you hope a crime drama will be – well acted, powerfully emotional, tangibly atmospheric and at times harrowingly thrilling. But somewhere towards the end of the second act a string in writer/director James Gray’s narrative yarn comes loose, and what was once a delicate cohesiveness spins wildly out of control.
While Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a nightclub manager, straddles the line of the law, his policeman brother (Mark Wahlberg) and father (Robert Duvall) protect and serve. Bobby rebels with dedication not only to familial defiance but also to the “life” he drinks in like good vodka. He’s in love with his Puerto Rican club girl (Eva Mendes), enthusiastically enjoys recreational drugs and has big ideas for the New York nightclub scene.
But of course these two worlds will collide, and when they do Bobby must choose between his surrogate family (which may be linked to the Russian mob) and his bloodline. We’ve seen this all before so we know which he’ll choose (never underestimate the importance of family in self-indulgent filmmaking), even if we don’t quite understand why.
We Own the Night fashions itself as the reverse Godfather, which would be an interesting idea if it were delivered with competence or panache.
But it’s not. Its narrative is clumsy and blunt, forcing the main character to do a complete 180 in a mere 2-week time span. A true epic (like the film mentioned above) is focused on one’s journey as a long process of personal development. Here we never really understand what’s going on inside Bobby’s head, and since we know that in reality a person doesn’t completely upend his values, his beliefs and his lifestyle in such a short period of time, it’s difficult to invest in the story. The film relies on so much willing suspension of disbelief that even the most agreeable moviegoer will be left questioning.
Perhaps most odd is Gray’s desire for epic significance even as he insists on a claustrophobic, “the walls are closing in around us” atmosphere. The director never allows his characters to breathe, consistently shooting his scenes in dark, narrow hallways or overcrowded rooms, intensifying them with close ups, wrapping his characters in his cinematic frame. It’s actually quite an achievement, but it’s not the way to shoot an epic.
Throw in a couple of coincidences and logical breakdowns and you’ve got more than enough reason for the guy sitting behind me in the theater to cry out “What the hell is going on in this movie?”
We don’t know – or at least we don’t understand – but for the most part we go with it, if only for the reasons listed in the first paragraph. The acting here is top-notch and there are at least two great sequences that will get your heart pounding.
Maybe the best way to understand why this film does or does not work is to view it through the prism of HBO’s Entourage. Gray is said to be the basis for Billy Walsh, the wild director and creative ally to the Wahlberg-based Vinny Chase. Filled with vision and talent but deeply flawed, We Own the Night is exactly what we would expect a Billy Walsh film to be.
Not everyone will enjoy this movie (it was booed at Cannes) but one thing is for certain – Billy Walsh would be proud.

*****

P.s. My brother loved it. But then again, this kind of movie is made for people like him.

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