Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gray Matters

My appreciation for director James Gray is no secret. While there are those who heave allegations of artistic similarity between Gray and Scorsese, they are worlds apart as far as mood and tone of film is concerned. It's unfair that the term "Scorsese-lite" is used as a denigration against Gray and even more unfair that so many people are rallying against "We Own the Night" as a cheap knock-off of last year's "The Departed", choosing to single out the performance of Mark Whalburg as a stale carbon-copy of that previous effort. The fact is, Gray is no Scorsese and his films are elegant and stately examples of New York 'crime films'. Scorsese is doing his thing and Gray obviously has an affinity (and eye, and ear) for the outer boroughs of New York and the seedy underbelly of Russian gangsters who threaten community and familial harmony. "We Own the Night" is a solid progression in his career and just as moody, atmospheric and brilliantly filmed as his two previous works that mine the same intense territory.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Whalburg (two actors who collided in Gray's 2001 film "The Yards"), "We Own the Night" places them in New York in the late 80's. As brothers, Phoenix runs a profitable night club and cozies up to Russian mobsters while Whalburg is a fast-rising police lieutenant targeting the very clientel that Phoenix caters towards. Caught between both worlds, Phoenix ultimately has to make a choice as to which side his loyalties lie with. In the mix is also Robert Duvall, as the police chief and father to both as well as Phoneix's girlfriend, played with sexiness and understanding by Eva Mendes in a role that could have easily spiraled into mawkish sentiments, but she instead turns it into something honest and believable.

As far as a plot synopsis goes, "We Own the Night" sounds wooden on paper (just as I'm sure his previous two narratives did) but its in the execution that his films come alive. Gray understands the texture that's missing from so many films, the powerful impact that lighting imbues on a production as well as the energy of ambient sound. For example, there are two highly intense set pieces that take ordinary genre settings and elevate them to something more. The first is when Phoenix enters a covert drug manufacturing apartment and the camera slinks along the dimly lit hallways with modulated dread. The quiet is deafening, which makes this scene all the more explosive. The second, a car chase in the pounding rain, virtually eliminating the usual cliches of such a scene, remaining fixed inside the car as Phoenix and Mendes are oblivious to the sounds outside and the soundtrack blurs out all sound except for the muffled sound of the windshield wipers. There are also two or three slow dissolves between scenes that hark back to the days of quiet 70's filmmaking that feel almost revolutionary in their classicism. In fact, that's the perfect word for "We Own the Night", a film that constantly rebukes modern styles for restrained and muted tones and culls the same rhythms from its acting. This is genre filmmaking at its best and it re-affirms my faith that director James Gray is an auteur in every sense of the word.

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