We Own the Night

Joaquin Phoenix and Clive Owen on the same weekend? Such a terrible decision… I really don’t see why they can’t spread the good movies out a little better. Sigh. Anyway, historical epic was narrowly beaten out by crime drama, and here we are.
This film sort of does for the crime drama what The Good Shepherd did for the spy movie. It’s surprisingly slow-paced, thoughtful, and it’s a shock whenever gunfire starts up… which is really how things should be. I mean, if the movie’s just scene after scene of bullets flying, you get numb to them. It should be a shock when someone gets shot. And it is that here. The one big plot twist, such as it is, isn’t a shock, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything.
Joaquin and Mark Wahlberg play brothers Robert and Joseph Grusinsky, though these days, Bobby goes by Green, because it’s easier to pronounce. It also helps hide the fact that both his brother and his father are police officers, which wouldn’t go down well with the wild crowd he hangs out with. Bobby manages a popular nightclub, you see, and he parties with the customers, drinking, using drugs, and playing high-stakes poker. (It’s so high-stakes, in fact, there was a “poker stunt double” listed in the credits.) But this is Joaquin Phoenix, so you can’t help but like him tremendously even as he does all these wild and irresponsible things. Or maybe that’s just me. He is at least a loyal boyfriend to Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes), that’s for sure.
Joseph, meanwhile, is a Good Cop, with a wife and kids, and obviously dad’s favorite son. Dad is Robert Duvall, as Lieutenant Burt Grusinsky, another Good Cop. Joe has just been appointed head of a special drug task force, and guess who’s nightclub is apparently a major center for the biggest drug deals? Why, the one Bobby runs, of course. It’s the owner’s nephew, the slimy Vadim Nezhinski, who runs things, and he’s a regular at the club. But when Dad and Brother ask Bobby to spy quietly on Vadim, he refuses — until things turn violent, as you knew they would.

Joaquin about to beat up Mark Wahlberg for daring to give him an acting lesson.

The rest of the film is about Bobby struggling to hang on to some kind of normal life as everything gets worse and worse around him. He makes a terrible double agent — I would too, though, to be fair. That’s gotta be one of the worst jobs imaginable. And this is Joaquin Phoenix, so you absolutely feel for him every step of the way. You can just feel his nervousness as he tries to help track the drugs back to their source, his helplessness as people get hurt and his relationship with Amada ends up under tremendous strain. It’s all very real, it’s what would happen to nearly anyone in that situation.
What isn’t so real is that the plot is really very linear — you pretty much know what’s going to happen ahead of time, and real life is never like that. You don’t mind much, though, because it’s so well-acted and presented. I don’t think much of Mark Wahlberg’s acting ability, really, but he can handle the part here. He’s maybe a little stiff and awkward, but that fits the character, who’s constantly fighting to be the most moral person he can be, I think. That must be absolutely exhausting to live with, but on the screen it works.
Three and three-quarters idols for this one. Poor Eva Mendes doesn’t get to do much, which is unfortunately the norm in movies like this, that focus on the family relationship angle to the exclusion of most other things. A shame, but I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere, or the movies will start running four hours instead of two, and the average U.S. citizen probably doesn’t have enough patience for that. You do have to be ready for a thoughtful movie to enjoy this one, so don’t go expecting lots of bullets flying — except in the trailer for Hitman, if your local theatre shows that one. Shell casings everywhere in that one…