Of a generation of filmmakers who all wanted to be the next Scorsese, James Gray was different: He wanted to be the next Scorsese, Christopher Marlowe, and Georges de La Tour. That ambition seems little diminished in this, his third film in 13 years, set in his chosen milieu of outer-borough lowlife. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), sybaritic manager of a Brooklyn nightclub, shuns his family's NYPD legacy, and his father and brother on the force (Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg) resent his independence. With the '80s drug wars raging at full heat, both dealers and cops vie for Bobby's cooperation; circumstance aligns him with the "good guys," and an ironic tragedy of falling into grace is set into motion as his new sense of duty damns him to the solemn moral wilderness of law and order. Helpless with comedy, heavily reliant on melodramatic coincidence, and out of step with all current cinematic vogue—the film received a divisive Cannes reception—We Own the Night finally resonates as a beautiful, dolorous nocturne. The closest thing Gray's done to a commercial actioner, it also applies his genius for tone, aided by superlative sound work, to set pieces that throb with trauma: a tinnitus-soundtracked shoot-out and a rain-slick car chase set to the tempo of windshield wipers.
Eva Mendes tempts Phoenix.
Opens at Pacific Place and other theaters, Fri., Oct. 12. Rated R. 117 minutes.