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Sunday, October 14, 2007

We Own The Night

I am very blessed to have a great brother. Of course it probably helps that we live 3,000 miles apart because it is easier to count one’s blessings when they are seen from afar and he doesn’t get in my face when I do something he doesn’t like, not that my brother ever has gotten in my face about anything. Unlike the Grusinsky siblings in We Own the Night, currently at the Essex Cinemas, my brother David and I have never so much as had an argument, yet alone lived on opposite sides of the law.

David has always been the squeaky clean one of the family and probably could have been wildly successful in politics if not for some of my antics and the hundred or so skeletons in the closet that belong to our other assorted relatives. They’re not actually their skeletons, if you know what I mean, but I guess whoever they used to belong to aren’t using them anymore so technically my crazy relatives can claim them as their own. Let’s face it, these days you can’t run for office if your great grandfather was a chicken thief for fear of it creating a public scandal. In our family, poor David would be crucified by something as simple as my Uncle Woody’s ‘wide stance,’ as they call it in the Senate.

David is a devout Catholic, which still shocks me as I writhe and my skin burns and muscle peels from the bone when I get within fifty yards of a Catholic Church. David is so good he could easily be the first American Pope if not for the fact that he is married. In these ways he is much like Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg; Shooter) a straight-laced police lieutenant in the New York City Street Crime Unit back in 1988. He is saintly in his good intentions to clean up the streets and keep his Brooklyn neighborhood a safe place to live. He is a perfect chip off the old block, the pride of his father’s eye, and his father just happens to be the deputy police chief, Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall; Lucky You). Together, they are well-liked and well-respected throughout the force.

What the rest of the force is not aware of is that Burt has a second son, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix; Walk the Line), the manager of El Caribe, a Brighton Beach nightclub owned by Russian patriarch Eli Mirichenko (Edward Shkolnikov in his big screen debut). Oh My God! I loved El Caribe! Okay, so it is basically a drug haven/brothel masquerading as a nightclub, but the building (or set, really) is gorgeous. If they would only drive those skanks out of the place and fumigate it El Caribe would be a fabulous place to live. And that’s exactly what happens, except for the ‘living there’ part.

The Grusinsky cops tell Bobby, who goes by his mother’s maiden name so no one will know he’s related to the noted police family, that they are going to be staging a huge bust on drug king-pin Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov; Neighborhood Watch) who is most often seen at Bobby's club. Naturally, the bust goes down at El Caribe and the place ends up emptier than a Justin Guaraní Fan Club convention. It also starts a chain of events that rocks the lives of all three Grusinskys.

Writer and Director James Gray (The Yards) could have easily turned We Own the Night into a simple story of sibling rivalry gone awry, but despite the often clichéd elements the family police drama obviously invokes ~ the shootout, the car chase, the hide-and-seek with a killer ~ he manages to bring an air of emotion to it that hasn’t been as heartfelt since the days of The Godfather.

Each of Gray’s characters is multi-layered and brilliantly executed by the actors at hand, though We Own the Night truly belongs entirely to Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix shows us exactly why he so deserved the Academy Award last year for Best Actor as he creates a character here that may at first seem unsympathetic and flawed beyond our caring about him yet he manages to make those flaws then play into the very reason he is so perfectly suited to help achieve the goals of his father and brother, whether he believes he is equipped for the challenge or not.

Phoenix is an actor with amazing charisma and charm behind those bright blue eyes. It’s hard not to conjure up memories of the personal tragedy that he must still carry in him as he watched his brother River die in his arms on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s ironic then to find him playing a free-wheeling, coke-snorting low-life. Parts of the action that follows in We Own the Night play close to recreating a sense of that night with River and while nobody dies from a drug overdose, there are familial scenes between brothers Bobby and Joseph that seem so real it is easy to believe Phoenix and Walbergh are really siblings and that Duvall is their father.

Walbergh is always an interesting actor to watch, though in this film his role is clearly secondary to Phoenix’s “Bobby”. Joseph is too righteous (but fortunately not self-righteous) to do anything wrong, so he is really only there to be a moral compass by which we (and father Burt) measure Bobby’s progress towards redemption. That’s the key to the film, really. It is being marketed as a family police crime drama, with the Russian mafia promoted as the “bad guys”, but the real bad guy is what is inside each of ourselves that we must conquer ~ that innate sense of right and wrong.

In We Own the Night a family trauma may be the instigator of change, but it is not the family relationships that are ever at risk in the movie. The Grusinskys are solid with one another even if it doesn’t always seem so. The real suspense and challenge comes from watching Bobby’s journey into and through the Russian mafia drug operations and whether he will make the choice to go to the moral life or surrender to a life of crime. There is one superbly shot scene, reminiscent of something you’d expect to see in a David Lynch creepfest, where Bobby, who had been blindfolded, is now freed of his covering in a mysterious building and told to walk down a completely dark corridor if he is to find the secret of the Russians’ drug operations. It’s a simple scene, a simple walk, and yet it is filled with dread because it represents everything Bobby is about. He can either help the police with this information or he can score big and join the operation. We all have these moments in our lives, just, hopefully, without machine guns waiting on the other side.

Without wanting to spoil the movie for anybody, I will say that the ending, for me, was one of the most beautiful and downright sweet things I have ever seen. Brother Bobby whispers in Joseph’s ear “I love you very much” to which Joseph responds “I love you too.” How doften do we see two adults, especially brothers, but any siblings, take the time to actually say those words to each other? Not nearly often enough, that’s for sure.

Oh, and on that note: I love you, David. And Happy Birthday!

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