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Review

Gritty cop drama ‘We Own the Night’ explores family turmoil

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October 19, 2007

Television and film circa the 1980’s assaulted audiences with a moralistic cascade of family values and togetherness.

It comes as no shocker then, that “We Own the Night,” James Gray’s new period crime piece set in 1988, sets out to deliver that same message of familial integrity. Although “The Brady Bunch” or “The Partridges” this is not, “We Own the Night” does still get across its message of “blood is thicker than water – or powder.” 

Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) has the perfect life. He manages the hottest club in New York, has an absolutely gorgeous girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and is on the highest rung of the elite social ladder. All he has to do is turn the other way while the Russian Mob smuggles cocaine through his nightclub.

Diametrically opposed is Bobby’s brother, Joseph Grusinksy (Mark Wahlberg). Joseph is the son of privilege and of favor, having followed the patriarchal footsteps through the police academy and onto the Force.

The chief of police and the brothers’ father, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall) showers praise on Joe but can hardly contain his disgust and disappointment whenever Bobby is around. This schism causes Bobby to estrange himself, drop his surname and find a surrogate dad in the owner of his club, Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). This dysfunctional family in pieces is forced back together when Marat’s drug peddling nephew, Vadim, attempts to murder Joseph and places a hit on Burt.

Although Bobby lives the life of decadence and sin, his warm and loving side is always apparent. An early scene of lust with his girlfriend proves he is not without feeling. When his brother is shot and his father threatened, that deep-seeded love within Bobby is ripped to the surface. The movie does not make it clear why he is affected by this so much. By all means, Bobby’s family treats him like the black sheep they wish had never been born.

Why, then, does Bobby turn his passion for life into a passion for revenge when his family is threatened? It is because Gray has painted a portrait of a family torn apart by differences yet held close together by the bond of kinship. By the mob hurting Bobby’s family, they have hurt him. This sense of family loyalties is what carries far an otherwise bland movie. The story is certainly nothing new and the dialogue can be downright bad at times. But it is how Gray deals with that tired subject matter that makes this film so intriguing. A movie that could hurl countless more relies on the strength of only two, albeit very intense, action scenes.

Beyond that, “We Own the Night is more concerned with the effect on relationships so much strain is having. Bobby must learn how to be a part of a real family again, and Burt is overwhelmed by the realization that both his sons are honorable men. A film that suffers from too much familiarity and a bored script is saved by its director’s need to explore family above all else. “We Own the Night,” in the end, comes out as a Norman Rockwell rendition of a Scorsese original.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.