James Gray's stately mini-epic We Own The Night plays with any number of familiar elements that hover between classical and shopworn: Two brothers on opposite sides of the law. First- and second-generation immigrants staking their claim to the American dream via ruthless gangsterism. Family, loyalty, sin, redemption, sacrifice, violence. Much of the film's gravity and allure can be attributed to the long tradition of crime dramas coursing through its veins, like The Godfather, Heat, Force Of Evil, and The Departed—and, to a lesser extent, Gray's other efforts, such as Little Odessa and The Yards. It's difficult to fault, but also hard to remember after viewing, which speaks either to Gray's conservative take on the genre, or his failure to bring anything new to the table. Whatever the case, We Own The Night plays like a masterpiece because it skillfully appropriates actual masterpieces, not because it earns the label on its own merits.
The emotional lynchpin in a first-rate cast, Joaquin Phoenix plays the bad son in a Brooklyn family where the men are expected to join the police force and perform honorably within the code of law. Unlike his strait-laced brother Mark Wahlberg, who's followed dutifully in the footsteps of father Robert Duvall, Phoenix has changed his last name and set off on his own to run a nightclub backed by the Russian mob. As Phoenix's bosses become more aggressive in cornering the drug market—thanks to the efforts of a terrifying hood played by Alex Veadov—they declare open warfare against the city police, and take out many of the men in blue. Naturally, the turn of events nag at Phoenix's conscience and sense of loyalty, but switching sides has potentially dangerous consequences for him and his girlfriend, Eva Mendes.
Nearly fulfilling Howard Hawks' famous adage about a great movie needing three good scenes and no offensive scenes, We Own The Night comes to life during two dazzling setpieces: A sting operation gone spectacularly awry, and a car chase in the driving rain. But sequences like those are anomalous in a film that's slow-burning and contemplative by nature, less concerned with genre payoffs than Phoenix pawing through a moral (and at one point, literal) fog. What's missing from this otherwise compelling film are those small, distinguishing wrinkles that might separate it from the pack; even the late-'80s Brooklyn milieu, a novel setting for a gangster drama, doesn't feel that far from contemporary. Gray deserves some credit, though, for making a movie that seems deeper and more resonant than it turns out to be.