Like most of the world, I saw The Departed last winter. “I thought it was pretty good,” I told my cinephile companion as we emerged from the theater after it ended. But then he tried to talk to me about, you know, the events of the plot, and it quickly became clear that I had confused Leonard DiCaprio and Matt Damon for much of the movie, shameful for anyone who was a girl in middle school when Titanic came out. I can, however, say this for The Departed: I may have been incredibly confused during much of it (despite the occasional elbow from said cinephile when he thought I should be paying more careful attention), but I was still able to understand that it was a movie of quality. More recently, I saw screenwriter/director James Gray’s newest film, We Own the Night, and it stands in direct contrast to The Departed. It is easy to follow, but you don’t particularly feel inclined to follow it, because it happens to be incredibly humdrum.
The movie opens in the far reaches of Brooklyn in 1988. Our characters are not cool enough or rich enough to be hanging out in Manhattan, and director Gray wants us to know it, so they give us the time and place in words across the bottom of the screen, as if he can tell his movie might not be good enough to establish the setting clearly on its own. As a viewer, you can take points away from the film already, because it has underestimated your ability to discern this setting from the large, gaudy nightclub (we’re not in Manhattan anymore), and the blown-out hair (what decade might that be meant to represent now, kids?) with the song “Heart of Glass” wrapping itself around a couple as they start to make out. The couple is Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) and girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes). Bobby runs this club, and we get the message from the way he treats Amada: He is the boss, and he acts like it in everything he does.
The plot eventually thickens, surprisingly enough. Some of the patrons of Bobby’s club are involved in a rapidly spreading drug trade, purportedly historically factual, and so Bobby becomes a valuable inside operator to the NYPD, because both his father (Robert Duvall) and his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg, not reason enough to see this movie, one learns) are on the force. Bobby is originally reluctant to help out because he doesn’t want to alienate the club’s clientele, but he becomes convinced around the time his brother gets shot by a guy in a bear mask, who we’re led to believe is on the team of the bad-guy drug dealers. The movie’s peak comes when the dealers figure out that he’s not just a neutral club-owner, and the cops have to shuffle Bobby and his girlfriend from one hotel to another to keep them in hiding; the most believable tension comes from a fight the couple has in one of these hotels when Amada learns that Bobby might join the NYPD himself. She can’t understand why he’d want this kind of life on a permanent basis. One of this film’s many failures at communicating why we should care kicks in here, when we’re supposed to support the force’s noble intentions, but we can’t understand why Bobby would want to join, either.
The clichés are packed in about as tightly as the dancers at Bobby’s nightclub. The plot, for one, is trite. We’ve had far more complex films on these subjects. The Departed was far deeper as a representative of the cop-drama genre; The Godfather covered families executing their own brand of justice pretty well. But in We Own the Night, the offerings are more limited. There is a poorly detailed subplot of Bobby’s dominating relationship with his girlfriend, Amada, a woman of so little agency that we don’t even learn her name from the film until the credits. Done before, check. The cinematography is largely unnoticeable until the requisite car chase, in which every angle that camera swings from is familiar. The dialog sinks especially low when the movie is supposed to be most moving. We actually hear “Your father will not have died in vain” at a funeral, where of course “I think he would have wanted you to have this” is uttered to accompany a colleague’s gift of the dead father’s medals to his sons. There’s a distinct us-or-them mood, so Bobby’s family tells him early on: “Sooner or later, you’re going to be with us or the drug dealers.” People do speak in clichés, but rarely do people in such dramatic situations speak about them in such boring terms. And film isn’t a medium with the privilege to show us what people really do; rather, it is supposed to present not only situations more interesting than real life, but also conversations more interesting and true and profound than the ones that happen in real life. Think on that, James Gray.