Films We’ve Watched: We Own The Night (2007)

18 Oct

Note: This was originally written as the program notes for this film when it was shown by the Austin Film Society at the Alamo Drafthouse on August 14.  More information is on their website:

The slogan “We Own the Night” first appeared as the motto of the Street Crimes Unit, an elite plain-clothes unit in the New York Police Department.  The Street Crimes Unit was formed in 1971 to battle the growing wave of crime threatening to engulf New York City at the time.  To understand just how elite this unit was, consider this simple comparison. The average police officer in the NYPD would invest 167 days into each arrest made.  By contrast, the, Street Crimes Unit would invest an average of 8.2 days into each arrest, while still maintaining an 80% conviction rate on those arrests.  These were the best of the best during what was probably the darkest moment in New York City’s long and troubled relationship with crime.

During this same period (1972-1979), photojournalist Leonard Free produced his book Police Work.  Filled with images of the NYPD, both at work and at play, the book presented a captivating look inside an organization that has long fascinated the outside world.  The images he presented were both horrific and glorious.  Grisly murder scenes are shown next to images of officers playing with neighborhood children.  In an interview Freed said, “I chose this title (Police Work) because the police are workers, they are not in command, they are not the mayor, they are not the lawyers.  They are ordinary working people.”

Almost thirty years later, writer/director James Gray gave us a beautiful interpretation of these “ordinary working people” in the film We Own The Night. It took its title from the Street Crimes Unit’s slogan, and found its initial inspiration from both a newspaper photo Gray saw of a police funeral and Leonard Free’s book.  Merging these the film gives us a classic story of duty and destiny played out in the confines of familial intimacy.

It’s 1988, and Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) is a successful nightclub manager, who is desperately trying to keep his family (Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg), and their professional lives as police officers, a secret.  What happens through the rest of the film is the slow unraveling of the life he has worked so hard to attain, and the evolution towards the life he was always meant to have.  Classic story?  Many American critics argued it was a little too classic when it debuted. They compared it to both a 1930s MGM film and a conventional television movie.  They argued the story’s familiarity made it all too predictable.

In his response, James Gray compared the film to the same Shakespearean play that helped him produce the plot.  He said, “The movie is about fate.  I laugh when I hear people say it’s predictable.  At the beginning of ‘Henry IV’ Prince Hal turns to the audience and says, ‘I’m fooling around with my friend Falstaff now, but by the end of this play I will be the king.’  For me it comes from a view of history which is connected to class, where there’s a kind of helplessness to the way people’s lives unfold.”

Perhaps this is the real reason the American critics were so harsh with the film.  Fate is a decidedly non-American idea.  In a nation that firmly believes in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, a predetermined destiny can be a very unappreciated notion.

In addition, having a film feel like a 1930s MGM film, or a European film noir, is also not the most popular attitude at this point in time. Despite the fact that Gray hints that the destiny our hero is pulled towards may not be as happy as his old life, some critics can’t seem to get over the classic Hollywood classification.  Luckily, Gray doesn’t let it bother him.  When asked about this comparison, he responded, “I honestly don’t ever think of how I’m classified, or how I would classify myself.  I do what it is that I feel closest to, what matters to me, what moves me, what I would like to see in the movies.”

And we can all be grateful that he does.  We Own The Night gives us masterful performances from everyone involved.  The actors (from Robert Duvall to Eva Mendes), the costumes (from the police uniforms to the nightclub outfits), the set design and decor (from the 1980s Coke Cans to The Clash playing in Bobby’s apartment), everything was meticulously selected to perfection.

Gray’s initial dream of giving us ‘Henry IV’ by way of Leonard Free’s photography turned into something truly beautiful and thought provoking.

– david



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