Ten Reasons Why We Own the Night is a Modern Classic:
Writing about underrated Brooklyn crime movies got me thinking a lot about James Gray. My list included his first feature, Little Odessa, and briefly mentioned his third, We Own the Night, which I hadn’t seen since it came out. Well, last week I watched We Own the Night again. And, goddamnit, I'm here to tell you it's one of the best crime movies of the 2000s and one of the best Brooklyn movies I’ve ever seen. Not a popular opinion probably. It came out the year after The Departed and people rejected it as a flimsy take on Scorsese’s award-winner. But here’s why it’s a classic:
1. Sure, it’s got some things in common with The Departed, but it’s actually a much better movie. Fuck with me on this. Come on. The Departed is mediocre at best, and it’s a shame that Scorsese, who has made at least five of the greatest movies of all time (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas) won for one of his weaker efforts. We Own the Night feels electric and alive and dark like Scorsese’s early work. Gray’s major concern isn’t with plot, but with character. Set in the late '80s, We Own the Night is scuzzy with city details and it nails all of them. The Departed, on the other hand, feels neutered and cartoonish. (As far as Boston crime movies go, it’s not in the same league as The Friends of Eddie Coyle or Gone, Baby, Gone.)
2. This car chase. One of the greatest ever. Certainly up there with sequences from The Seven-Ups, The French Connection, Bullitt, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Ronin, Vanishing Point, and The Driver. Gray claims he studied every chase put on film and determined that none of them used weather and POV effectively. The result: a gritty, claustrophobic, gray-hued chase that rattles the walls of the viewer’s imagination.
3. The way Gray uses color. In one of the making-of documentaries included on the DVD, Gray talks about wanting to leave the color blue out of the movie altogether. Realizing that this would be difficult with cops as main characters, the blues are restrained to sequences in the police station. The resulting murkiness is true to the biggest and smallest of Brooklyn darknesses.
4. There are Joaquin Phoenix people and then there are people who hate Joaquin Phoenix. I think he’s a hell of an actor. You don’t? I don’t give a shit. He’s aces here as Bobby Green, never hamming it up with a Brooklyn accent the way so many actors do when they’re in Brooklyn mode (always such a goddamn terrible embarrassment).
5. Robert Duvall as Burt Grusinsky, father to Phoenix’s Bobby and Mark Wahlberg’s Joseph. Always a badass, here Duvall’s tough and tender the way only he can be. He lets Phoenix bounce off of him and plays it all like an old pro.
6. Eva Mendes Eva Mendes Eva Mendes.
7. James Gray knows Brooklyn the way almost no other contemporary filmmaker I can think of does. I grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘80s and this movie gets everything right: the look and the sounds and the colors and the clothes and the frantic weariness. The period detail is astounding. It’s sad to think how little that was appreciated when the film was released.
8. It feels like a ‘70s crime movie. Not slick. Never easy. Gritty and raw and slopping around in the dirty streets. Gray's a master at silence and spectacle.
10. Sure, some of what happens in the movie isn’t plausible—How, as Ebert says, do people not connect Bobby with his brother and dad early on? Is it even possible to become a cop on the spot the way Bobby does? (Gray, in the making-of documentary, says that bit’s rooted in reality.) In any case, I give a fuck if it’s all plausible or not? I only ask that a movie (or book or whatever) sells me on the world it exists in, and Gray’s Brooklyn is both urgently real and hyper-exaggerated in all the best ways.
Bill Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY and lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, Salon, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Out of the Gutter, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.
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