Better than The Godfather
Things change; fact of life. I've been fond of Coppola's gangster epic since I was but eight years old, catching snatches of the Cuba sequence in my grandfather's private viewing screen (long story), seeing part 1 several years later and revisiting both every year since. I grew up practically developing my sense of cinema on those pictures, learning about theme and character, the use of music, cinematography, location and design to create a sensibility, a distinct vision.
And things change; sensibilities change. The virtues of Coppola's first two films have become a touch too familiar (the third I’m learning to appreciate a bit more for the ugly yet not entirely charmless duckling that it is); the famed line "leave the gun; take the canoli" has become almost tiresome in its ubiquity--instead of being a sharp line of dialogue it's become the punchline to everything from Godfather jokes to parodies on TV (and in fact Anthony Bourdain staged one such parody in his travel show not too long ago). Things change, and while the films will hopefully remain enjoyable pop spectacles, full of iconic images (rough sex at weddings; horse heads in bedrooms; handguns wrapped in towels; epic massacre sequences) it's about time, I feel, that I found something new to admire.
Or, rather, I've found something new and developed this little theory to explain my disenchantment with the former (though to be honest I've been growing less and less fond of them for years), my fascination with the latter. James Gray's We Own the Night (2007) is arguably not just the best American film of the year so far but the best American crime thriller in several (aside from Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006) his massive and beautifully brooding reinterpretation of the hit '80s cop show). It traces the trajectory of two brothers, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) as they look over and cross each other's boundaries in 1988 Brooklyn. Joseph is a newly promoted officer in the NYPD's narcotics department; Bobby is the manager of a hot new Brooklyn nightspot Caribe. Both are up-and-comers in their respective worlds, with Joseph being advised by his father, Chief of Police Burt Grusinsky (a fine-as-ever Robert Duvall) and Bobby being the protégé and confidant of Caribe owner Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). What gets things rolling is Marat's nephew Vadim Nehzinski (Alex Veadov)--word is that he's about to land a huge shipload of drugs (actual type is never really specified, but from all the sniffing I assume it's cocaine), where or when nobody knows. Joseph asks Bobby: has he heard anything about it and if he has, is he willing to help?
It's no accident that Bobby and Joseph's surnames don't match, by the way; Bobby has taken on his mother's. He jokes about it, saying "Grusinsky" is too hard for most people to pronounce, but the real reason, presumably, is that Bobby refuses to be tied to his family, especially to his father Burt (the other reason may be that in the coke-snorting circles in which he circulates, having familial connections with the police may be a liability). In a later scene Joseph professes to feeling jealous that Bobby has pretty much been able to do what he pleases (not without clashing with Grusinsky senior), while he, the prodigal's brother, mostly obeyed their father's wishes. Joseph's words seem ironic, considering what follows.
We're introduced to Bobby's world first, with an eye-popping Freudian scenario, if Freud edited Penthouse Magazine: Amada (the luscious Eva Mendes) is curled up in a gold-upholstered couch, in a kind of erotic haze; on the soundtrack thumps out (what else?) Blondie's Heart of Glass. Bobby makes his entrance in the distinct Gray manner (striding towards the camera, the doorway framing him from behind, the ambient light growing stronger at his approach). He bends down to his feline pet curled up in her golden womb (a mother figure and object of desire in one fabulous package) and caresses her between the legs, slipping his fingers under her black panties; a nipple pops out, startling in its perfection, and he applies his lips to it with infantile greed.
Admittedly this type of film and its emphasis on family and relationships (and, of course, sex and violence) could never be made without the huge success of Coppola's Godfather pictures, and in fact the general shape of Gray's narrative shows striking correspondences with the earlier films: the way one brother stands outside of family affairs (Bobby is the film's Michael Corleone); the way a near-fatal shooting in the first third of the film crystallizes the crisis; the way Bobby transforms during said crisis from amoral hedonist to loyal family member, and is put through a harrowing test; even the way he is at one point pulled aside and told "I didn't want all this for you…").
The similarities are fascinating, but so are the differences. Where Coppola drenches his films in rich gold hues (I like to say his cinematographer Gordon Willis must have poured extra-virgin olive oil on the lenses), Gray adopts a chillier palette: the Grusinsky home, the various apartments and motel rooms, the police station, the streets themselves seem dim, autumnal, even (appropriately) a varied shade of concrete gray (only Marat is rich enough to build his house with dark wooden floors and walls)). The net effect in Coppola's first Godfather film was to lead some critics into accusing him of glamorizing the Mafia, to which he responded in the sequel with a cooler scheme of Nevada stone (Coppola reserved his warmer colors for Cuba, Sicily, and early New York). Gray's film is more strikingly urban: nightclubs, alleys, underpasses and abandoned warehouses (a climax in a field of tall grasses is the marked exception); where Coppola's film is locked away in the past, encased like a fly in amber so to speak, Gray's is here and now (even if it's a 1988 kind of 'here and now').
And while Coppola's film seems like the very height of American cinematic art (at least compared to recent gangster flicks), one sometimes has to remember that it was based on a bestseller written over thirty years ago, and that the adaptation had every expectation of being a commercial hit (that Coppola had turned pulp entertainment into a family saga was, at least to popular perception, icing on a cake). It's Coppola's telling, but of novelist Mario Puzo's story; Coppola's pacing and camerawork, but Puzo's structure and themes (one goal Coppola declared, coming out of the success of the films, was to try develop a more personal cinema). Gray creates out of whole cloth, and his storytelling is, arguably, even less commercial than Coppola's--aside from the jawdropping opening sequence it's a long slog till the first big sequence, the police raid on Bobby's nightclub, with its swirling, panicking crowds and its horrific touch of a bottle of charcoal poured into someone's mouth (it evokes a similarly repulsive scene in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1969)).
A long wait, that is, unless you manage to notice the grace notes Gray scatters throughout the film--the little pirouette Marat's wife makes, for example, as she and Bobby waltz into the dining room to meet her husband, or the kiss Bobby gives Marat in the forehead as he takes joyous leave of him (a new nightclub was to be established, possibly in Manhattan, and Bobby was to take charge), or the wary look Joseph and Burt give each other when Bobby arrives at a policeman's function with Amada in tow. There's the way Amada and Bobby make love to each other, lost together in their little world (hence the cocoon-like nature of the couch), and how later Amada remains at Bobby's side no matter how reduced his circumstance, wordlessly showing that her passion for him is more than just sexual, and how even this brave face changes, and the passion dies. Amada (and Mendes's interpretation of her--perhaps the capstone of her career) is I think a gem of a creation in a constellation of fine creations--a woman in a film where women are often shoved aside to the margins, but who stubbornly refuses to remain a cipher, who refuses to completely knuckle under and become just another faceless trophy-wife.
Gray is a master of the little detail that says pages about the character; he often frames said characters in medium distance from waist up, close enough (but not too close) to catch their gestures and expressions as they reveal themselves to us. The pleasures he gives us are so subtle it's almost an intellectual exercise trying to pick them out (which is probably why all three of his films to date have not grossed much more than thirty million dollars); better yet to lean back, relax, and sense those pleasures from the back of one's mind (maybe come back for a second viewing, for a better glimpse of the marginalia).
Then there's the car chase in the rain, a sequence that takes off from a similar chase in William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) but swiftly and spectacularly becomes its own creature--Gray knows how to work against the material, to use not heavy metal music or even heavier metal sound effects Michael Bay-style but instead a heavy absence of sound, the kind of awful silence you hear in the stretched-out seconds before a car hits (in the background Gray lays on a metallic thumping beat that somehow manages to sound both regular (like a stamping machine) and out-of-control (like a runaway heartbeat)). That plus judicious use of the handheld camera, so remarkably absent throughout the rest of the film; unlike in, say, Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne movies where the camera is whipped about indiscriminately (hence, less effectively), here the trembling lens suggest Bobby's chaotic state of mind, evoke his utter helplessness in the face of matters going horrifyingly wrong.
Then there's theme and content, to which Gray in a recent interview attaches prime importance (he can attach all the importance to it that he wants; to my mind he may be a tad confused about priorities, but remains every bit as good a stylist as he is a narrative storyteller). We Own The Night, Gray tells us, is the capstone in a trilogy--the first, Little Odessa (1994) was about the Russian Mafia; the second, The Yards (2000) about corruption in the city government; the third, this one, deals with the police. It's been noted that the film has a more clearly demarcated line between good and evil, which is partly true; the police aren't corrupt, they have an antagonistic rather than ambivalent relationship with the Russian Mafia--but corruption isn't what the film's about. This is basically Bobby Green's story, his trajectory from a kind of sensual innocence (that womblike gold couch) to a state of moral awareness stranded in a gray limbo. Bobby eventually decides he wants to do the right thing, but it costs him, the way it cost his brother and father, and Gray expresses this through the visual scheme of his film (from warm gold to tomblike cold). He gets glimpses of that paradise here, there--that's why, I think, the field of golden grass was so tempting, and why he caught a glimpse of Amada in an audience--he keeps longing for it, but it's lost, lost, lost. If Gray's previous film The Yards begins with Phoenix and Wahlberg saying "I love you;" "I love you too"--an expression of sibling solidarity that the film proceeds to break down, in We Own the Night the declaration of love comes at the end of the film--a kind of consolation prize they present to each other, in the face of the desolation that is their lives. If we believe in Bobby's success, if we at all believe in his redemption, it's because we believe in the width and depth and range (more, Gray makes us believe it) of the price he had to pay to achieve that redemption.
(First published in Businessworld, 11/9/07)