Few will forget the steamy and explicit sex scene between Eva Mendes and Joaquin Phoenix that begins “We Own the Night,” but the rest of the film fails to maintain the same level of excitement.
Phoenix plays nightclub manager Bobby Green, who hides his policemen brother and father from his fast-living friends. After a hit man attempts to kill his brother, Green is forced to more closely examine his connections to the drug trade and the Russian mob as he struggles to protect the rest of his family from the criminals who patronize his establishment. It’s cops against the mob, and Green is stuck in the middle. In the hands of writer-director James Gray, however, this tangled web of lies and deceit comes to a decidedly unexceptional realization.
In spite of his weak script, Gray does display flashes of brilliance as a director. He films a particularly important gun battle and car chase entirely through the rain-pounded windshield of a pursuing car, obscuring everything but the silhouettes and muzzle flashes of the combatants in bleak gray. Muting the sights and sounds of the fight, Gray depicts the clumsy reality of violence and focuses the audience on the protagonists’ helpless desperation. The outcome of the fight is thoroughly predictable — an open secret from the trailer and the genre — but Gray skillfully maintains the raw emotional impact of the moment.
Artfully obscuring the action in the car chase seems like a savvy directorial choice, but as the film goes on, Gray betrays some bizarre obsession with obscuring the audience’s view as he routinely and inexplicably obstructs the camera. In a hospital scene, screens shield a wounded Mark Wahlberg from view. Again, during a critical argument between Green and his girlfriend (Eva Mendes), Gray inexplicably hides their faces behind a lampshade. And near the film’s end, when Phoenix wades into a marsh filled with smoke and tall reeds, one has to wonder whether Gray was fulfilling a bet about how long he could get away with playing peek-a-boo with the camera.
Having amassed an impressive cast for “We Own the Night,” Gray fails to draw impressive performances out of any of them. The principle drug dealer is successfully sinister, despite the handicap of looking a lot like Weird Al Yankovich with a well-oiled ponytail. Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall (as Bobby’s brother and father, respectively) give brief, lackluster performances far beneath their ability. Gray’s camera work prevents the audience from lingering on any actor, and Duvall especially suffers from the lost occasions to flesh out his character.
As Green’s girlfriend Amada, Eva Mendes does not particularly distinguish herself as an actor. Saddled with such groan-inducing lines as “sometimes it just feels like the walls are closing in on us,” the movie offers her few opportunities to be anything more than distraught eye-candy. Mendes does make for fabulous eye candy, however, and Gray goes out of his way to lavish attention on her ample charms. Whatever the tenor of the rest of the scene, Gray preserves the languorous sensuality of his star, even if it means gratuitous slow-motion.
Ultimately the film rests on Phoenix’s shoulders. Phoenix, who has won both fame and fortune in Hollywood for his excellence in depicting haunted and tortured men, is good but uninspired. Reacting to his character’s various traumas with listlessness more than any thing else, Phoenix fails to bring forth the nuance that won him two Oscar nominations. Like most of the other actors in “We Own the Night,” his minimalist portrayal relies too heavily on the audience independently experiencing the emotions that the situation must cause.
This dependence on actions rather than acting cripples what could have been an exceptional opportunity for a gifted cast to showcase its considerable talents. “We Own the Night” finds itself in the ignoble, but relentless pursuit of mediocrity.