Conversation: We Own the Night and James Gray

16 08 2013


This is the initial private message I sent to Izzy Black, a forum member at The Corrierino, Rotten Tomatoes, and Match-Cut, and a terrifically literate student of film and philosophy. Read Izzy’s response here.  

To Izzy Black: Anyhow, I saw We Own the Night the other day, largely because of your praise. I really loved it. I wanted to discuss with you, though, what you thought might be unique or new about it. Certainly, I felt it wasn’t quite like other movies of its type, even as it so closely resembled them. But I am finding it difficult pinning down exactly why this is.

Certainly, despite the seedy mafia setting, this is decidedly not Scorsese. James Gray is too languid and moody. His editing rhythms have nothing to do with Scorsese’s (and Schoonmaker’s) quick, fragmented cutting. And neither does his directing of actors. One commenter on IMDB pointed out how somber We Own the Night seemed, and how Joaquin Phoenix appeared to carry a great weight over his shoulders. That is certainly the case. Although Scorsese’s characters suffer their share of external pressures, their responses tend to be more violent, self-destructive, physical. Here, Phoenix responds through weary acceptance of the challenges ahead. Scorsese’s characters descend into depths of neurosis. Phoenix awakes to greater awareness, wisdom, and also heaviness, depression, doubt. He almost starts out as a Scorsese character, but then turns in another direction, more introspective and slow-footed.

Because of the leisurely pace and grand themes of family, Gray sometimes approaches The Godfather, but even that comparison fails to fit. Coppola’s staging is more grandiose, sculptural. His characters turn into statues. There is almost a timeless, mythic sense to them. De Niro’s Corleone is a good example. He doesn’t speak much and he suggests infinite wells of wisdom. Which, of course, aren’t there. It’s about posture, about looking the part. And also, Coppola is trying to enlarge his family crime saga into something epic and all-encompassing. Gray is not doing that, I don’t think. His characters are oddly soft, fragile, even quirky. Phoenix starts off a well dressed, well groomed, suave, chic nightclub manager. And very soon, he’s a hoodie-wearing bum, just trying to live another day, wracked by guilt because he’s ignored his family. His brother isn’t much better. He has daddy issues. He became a cop because his dad was a cop, and he’s terrified of contradicting him. When danger is afoot, he freezes. Coppola would probably make a big deal about this, like he does with Fredo, turn him into some archetype of weakness and self-doubt. Gray is more down-to-earth, I think. Whalberg is just human and, after all, not everyone is cut out for this job. Neither he nor Phoenix are larger-than-life or Shakespearean. Gray doesn’t frame them that way, either. Coppola has his mob characters sit and stand still, sometimes lighted from above, shadows dropping on their faces. They are hardened, time-worn. And they utter big, sage-like quotes. Nothing of the sort happens in Gray, his characters are far more weak-willed, far more commonplace. They are pushed to their limits, and they are not up to the challenge. In the key car chase, the drama and suspense emerges, not from Phoenix being in danger, but from Phoenix not being able to do anything. He’s powerless. And during an earlier, action sequence, when he infiltrates the drug house undercover, Phoenix blows the sting, his quickening pulse and drooping eyelids giving away the fact that he’s wired and in league with the police.


So, what other cinematic models might there be? I thought of Mann and Heat. I haven’t seen Miami Vice, yet. And in Heat, I thought, there was a similar balance between crime genre elements and intimate moments. These intimate moments lie outside the crime plot, and that is exactly the point: for De Niro, the intimate moments suggest a life beyond crime, a lovely romance, which he can’t enjoy because crime always sucks him back in, since he is always, at the end of the day, a thief; while for Pacino’s cop, the intimate moments are the opposite, a life beyond crime that pushes him back into crime, a series of unsatisfying family relationships that reveal his shortcoming as both father and husband, and reinforce the fact that the only thing he’s good at is catching thieves. Which is why De Niro and Pacino are continuously led in the same direction: De Niro wants to escape, but can’t; Pacino can escape, but doesn’t want to; and both remain in the circle of crime and punishment. But – and my memory may be spotty here – there is no real social element. Mann abstracts the situation, makes it into a story of two men trying to find their place in the world, and finding it only in each other, in the cat-and-mouse game that has become the only reason for their respective existences, as if in living the way they have – as thief and law enforcer, respectively – they have burned all bridges elsewhere. Certainly, that is close to Gray’s theme in We Own the Night, but Gray gives us more of a sense of time and place. his characters are not lonely men deciding for themselves, but doubting men who don’t know how to stand amidst the rush of History, amidst a vast, nocturnal contest between criminals and the law. Sure, the protagonists in Heat are not entirely independent. But their universe only extends as far as their interpersonal relationships. Who they know, what they’ve done, and what who they know know about what they’ve done. We Own the Night is different. There’s a larger war going on, something far bigger than all the characters, something that predates them and will continue after them. Characters are not brought down by the consequences of their actions – which is the feeling I get from Heat – but by their inadequacy against the tides of their immediate context.

As a preliminary distinction, then, I would say We Own the Night differs from other movies of its type partly because of this: its characters are not simply fragile in the sense that they don’t keep their composure in times of danger or that they seem to carry a weight over their shoulders, but also because they don’t really have much control over what happens. Even in the end, when Phoenix seems to have emerged victorious, it’s at most a Pyrrhic victory if any at all. The last shot is surely haunting. And will that be the end of his dealings with the Russian mafia? Probably not. It’s probably not over. And, anyways, so much of him has been eaten away by all he’s gone through – losing his nightclub, losing his independence (from his family, from his father), losing his father (which makes his father a stronger presence than he’s ever been), etc – that, clearly, though he’s proven resilient, he’s only so insofar as we can call a ruin resilient.

Maybe that’s why the movie was not so popular, I don’t know. Audiences enjoy characters with personal agency, who control the strings of the story. Some script writing books even point this out as a requirement for good storytelling. Gray seems to use the traditional tools of the genre to tell the story of men who are overwhelmed by their social context, and who are found out as defenseless children in the eye of the storm. Which means this movie is a kind of noir. But it’s like a sleepy, more melancholy noir. It doesn’t feel like one. Not to me, though I admit many themes are like noir. But it feels like noir with the expressive heights and lows tempered by grief. There’s no space here for emotional blacks and whites, for extremes. There’s just a kind of shell-shocked numbness. There’s some of the glamour of noir, the sinful underworld, etc. But we leave that glamour behind very quickly. The rest is hotel rooms and dwindling hopes, as Phoenix tries to keep his location secret from those searching for him (in fact, the social context is mostly implied, something Phoenix is told about, and which he glimpses at the night club or the drug house, which makes it more terrifying, a nearly unseen danger ‘out there’). Also, noir is so Romantic, the dark city reflects the dark souls of its inhabitants, architectural and spiritual space one and the same thing. That happens here, kind of, but it’s not the same game, the same moral questions about light and darkness. We Own the Night is about a state of mind, a state of doubt: Phoenix hides in hotel rooms, in transient locations, almost no-places of transit, located nowhere and everywhere, and only underlining just how lost Phoenix really is. Still, there’s plenty of noir here, and genres are fluid things.

At any rate, Phoenix’s final victory is in keeping with all of the above, all the powerlessness and fragility. He essentially does little to avenge his father, other than stupidly run into the smoke to kill someone, his nemesis, who is already as good as caught by the police. And the confrontation is odd, awkward, and though Phoenix kills his enemy, his enemy’s death is not operatic and cathartic, it’s not a confirmation of Phoenix’s growth and maturation, but rather depressing, pathetic. He lies there like a squashed bug, the dying enemy, amidst the twirling smoke of Phoenix’s inner hell. And when he sees him on the floor, bloody, Phoenix backs away and returns to the rest of his life as a traumatized (now) policeman, like his dead father and broken brother. Not very celebratory at all. And, mind, this is the only moment in the entire movie where Phoenix actually one-ups his situation, actually has control. Throughout, he has only endured the endless menace surrounding him, like a background noise. And speaking of noise, was it just my faulty ears or was there a barely perceptible, vibrating noise behind many scenes? Like a droning, electronic, menacing sound.

— Guido Pellegrini

Twitter: @beaucine




2 responses

17 08 2013
The Cinema of James Gray: A Coversation Between Two Cinephiles | Agents and Seers

[…] This was originally a response to Guido Pellegrini, a Match-Cut, Rotten Tomatoes, and Corrierino forum member and excellent film writer as part of an ongoing conversation about James Gray and We Own the Night. Read his part here. […]

27 08 2013
Conversation: We Own the Night and James Gray (Part 2) | Elevator to Alphaville

[…] and director James Gray’s oeuvre. For the first part (and a link to Izzy’s response) click here. Izzy’s response to this second post will be shared shortly on this […]

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