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Writer/Director James Gray has made three films with six or seven years in between each. His newest is the cop drama We Own the Night, a pretty basic tale of brothers on different sides of the law and a crime that brings them together. Truthfully, it is very straightforward, clichéd, and quite convenient at many turns. One must give credit to the cast for doing all they can to mask the banality of it all as they do make it interesting to follow through. One can’t help but feel cheated, though, when all is said and done. There are a lot of good things happening, unfortunately it is all so obvious that it doesn’t really matter.

Every twist and turn is telestrated. While this means there’s few plot holes it also means there are few surprises. Clues and devices are laid out in the open for us to realize that events occur for a reason, but have a little tact, please. (They give him a Zippo and he doesn’t think anything of using his matches still? At least let him put both in his pocket and not show him light another cigarette; don’t make him look like an idiot by continuously using the matchbook.) Relationships are altered very quickly and easily, but I guess one can believe the major tragedies happening will do that. Maybe the bad blood between father and son vs. black sheep was fleshed out too well making the reversal that much more difficult to buy. The pieces all fall because that is the only place they can in order for the film to conclude in the way the filmmaker imagined. It is all a puzzle with a beginning and end that was filled up with too much detail in order to make it all interlock perfectly.

While the plot and execution are stale and ordinary, the performances are not. If Gray did anything top-notch it was in his ability to squeeze some great turns from his actors. Even Mark Wahlberg, great in the right roles and atrocious in the wrong ones, does well as a by-the-books cop. Maybe because he is not onscreen for very long, I thought he did a good job holding his own against better talent and never falls into his overacting schtick, (whether this gives me hope that he won’t ruin Shyamalan’s new movie as a public school science teacher remains to be seen). Eva Mendes also does well, giving her female in distress stereotyped role some emotion and breathing room, allowing the audience to see that she is more than the Puerto Rican bimbo her boyfriend’s family thinks she is. And then you have the legend Robert Duvall playing another rendition of what he does best—the hard-nosed taskmaster with the stone façade and maybe a little bit of heart buried underneath. His transformation in regards to how he treats his sons is the most unbelievable of all, but for some reason he pulls it off well enough for me to not care as much.

The real star of the show, however, is Joaquin Phoenix. I have heard some things saying that he is pretty bad here, but I beg to differ. If anyone’s metamorphosis is to be realistic, it is his Bobby Green. Here is a man that decided to go on his own path to success, turning down the law enforcement life of his family and becoming a free spirit who works his way from bartender to club manager. Between the fast lifestyle, drugs, and money you forgive his naivete to what is going on behind the scenes. To experience the atrocities that soon turn his world upside down would change anyone’s outlook on life. Wanting to make amends for things that were out of his control, yet tugging away at his psyche with immense guilt, Phoenix starts to show the qualities that make him like his father and brother. Just because he did the drugs and partied hard never meant he didn’t have a good sense of moral fortitude and compassion for his fellow man. Some people just need a push to let it all come to the surface.

Complete with a cornucopia of supporting roles including nice turns from Danny Hoch as Jumbo, Alex Veadov as Vadim (quite the intimidating cat), and Moni Moshonov as Buzhayev, Gray has a knack for allowing his pieces to find their voices and work the board. It is a shame that they couldn’t have been doing it all for a better film. We Own the Night is not bad by any means; it just is nothing special either. In a time when mainstream dramas are a dime a dozen, films need to have that little extra something to set them apart from the rest. This one hopes that it can mix a couple genres together, make it all air tight, and set it free to become great. Things just don’t work that way. I myself would rather have a plot hole ridden work of uniquely inventive art than a steady, safe story that can be deciphered right from the opening credits.

We Own the Night 6/10

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