Sunday, October 14, 2007
While it isn't as masterful as their last project together, THE YARDS (2000), the just released WE OWN THE NIGHT proves that James Gray is one of the most talented American writer-directors on the scene right now, and that Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg are two of our finest actors.
Gray's films are interesting. He is clearly someone who is trying very hard to make movies like the ones he grew up with in the seventies, but unlike many young filmmakers inspired by the seventies though, there isn't any sly referential winking about his pictures. Most films inspired by the American cinema of the seventies today seem to be about works of that period, whereas Gray actually succeeds in making films that seem of it.
In the fifteen years since he first came on the scene, Gray has just completed three pictures. But all three show him as someone who has a legitimate shot at becoming a major modern auteur. LITTLE ODESSA (1994), THE YARDS and now WE OWN THE NIGHT all are similar character studies centering on family and betrayal. They are all also obsessed with the differences between the law and justice. Gray's film's are amazingly low-key, natural affairs that are methodically paced. This is one guy who really likes to take his time, and he isn't afraid to ask the same of his audience.
WE OWN THE NIGHT concerns two brothers, one a cop and the other an owner of swank Brooklyn night club. The film is set in 1988, although Gray's choice of music is firmly rooted in 1978. You get the feeling watching it that everyone is just slightly behind where they should be, and that they are the products of a world slipping quickly out of control around them.
Gray's stories never feel new or particularly fresh, as decades of filmmakers ranging from Jean-Pierre Melville to Francis Ford Coppola have been telling them. Perhaps what is most compelling about Gray is the way he is telling him, and most importantly that he is telling them today. Whereas most of today's filmmakers seem to have their own little group who are making similar films, Gray seems very much alone to me in what he is trying to do.
Like his first two films, WE OWN THE NIGHT is perfectly constructed, and is incredibly well performed. The fact that it doesn't quite have the weight of THE YARDS is only a tribute to how masterful that film was. Two of THE YARDS stars return here, and both Phoenix and Wahlberg turn in emotionally jolting and honest performances. Newcomer to Gray's films is young Eva Mendes and she is extremely good in a pretty demanding part. Robert Duvall turns in his customary great turn, and it is always a pleasure to see THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE star Tony Musante pop up.
Like Mendes, another new but key player to Grays' camp is cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay, and his work here is really splendid. WE OWN THE NIGHT might very well be the darkest film of the year, and his splendid photography really brings out every nuance of available light possible. It is a eerie and harshly beautiful film to look at.
I will be offering up a full review of this jewel once it hits DVD. I will say for right now that it is one of the best films of the year. It also has one sequence, involving a car chase in the rain, that is among the best of the decade. It is a pleasure to watch Gray, Phoenix and Wahlberg together again nearly eight years after THE YARDS. I for one can't wait to see what they all do next.