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Prodigal Son Echoes to Be Found in We Own the Night

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 15, 2008
Prodigal Son Echoes to Be Found in <i>We Own the Night</i>

DVD Release Date:  February 12, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  October 12, 2007 
Rating:  R (for strong violence, sex, drug material and language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  118 min.
Director:  James Gray
Actors:  Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes

Echoes of the prodigal son parable abound in this crime film by director James Gray (The Full Yard).  Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) and his father Burt (Robert Duvall) play the older brother and father.  Burt is a widowed Brooklyn police chief in the late ‘80s, a time when illegal drugs were becoming more and more abundant on the streets.  He and Joseph are determined to stop this state of affairs, and have targeted a Russian Mafioso named Vadim (Alex Veadov), who is importing large quantities of cocaine.  Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), Burt’s youngest son, just happens manage an upscale Brooklyn nightclub owned by Vadim’s uncle.  The uncle adores Bobby and he and his wife treat him like their long-lost son. 

Much like the prodigal son of the Bible, Bobby spends his time drinking, drugging, gambling and fooling around with his sexy Puerto Rican girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes).  They’re living the high life, and there’s nothing to stop them.  Except, maybe, loyalty.  When Burt and Joseph ask for Bobby’s help in nailing Vadim, Bobby is furious and refuses.  Then Vadim, who has no idea about the family connection (he only knows Bobby by his mother’s last name, Green), asks Bobby to join his drug operation.  Bobby declines.  But after Joe and Burt stage a raid on the club, and Vadim takes out a contract on both Grusinskys, Bobby is forced to choose.

This is Gray’s third feature film, for which he also penned the script.  And he’s a talented director and writer.  Although the plot isn’t brilliant and suffers from some obvious contrivances (especially the end), it’s still an engaging spectacle where the ominous threat of violence looms in every scene.  The cinematography jumps between gritty gray daylight scenes and dark nightscapes, shot with an abundance of reds.  It’s well done, and it all harks back to the noir crime dramas of the ’70s.

Duvall and Wahlberg are good, as always, but not outstanding.  This is due to the writing, which moves the film forward at a brisk clip but doesn’t feature any exceptional dialogue.  Action scenes abound, however, and viewers who appreciate thrillers will love its heart-pounding suspense.  Of particular note is the chase scene, which is viewed through a windshield in the driving rain.  Gray also makes great use of silence then closes the sequence with an emotional climax. 

As the ambiguous Bobby, Phoenix is decent.  The actor seems a bit stoned throughout most of the film, with an alarming tendency toward muttering.  Still, Phoenix is a natural when it comes to playing morally reprehensible characters.  And here, he manages to convince us of his dramatic character transformation as well.  That, and the dynamics between the three men, are by far the best part of the film, which has a strong message about family and the eventuality of good conquering evil—albeit at great personal suffering and sacrifice.  It’s a poignant yet realistic message of redemption.

Infused with strong violence, language, drugs and sexuality, We Own the Night is a guy’s film, for the most part.  In fact, women play only marginal, stereotypical roles (quiet housewife, sexy girlfriend).  But all crime film buffs, especially those with a penchant for ’70s noirs, should appreciate it.


  • Commentary with writer and director James Gray
  • Tension: Creating We Own the Night
  • Police Action:  Filming cops, cars and chaos
  • A Moment in Crime:  Creating Late ’80s Brooklyn
  • Previews


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  The film’s theme is drug dealing, so drug use (including its importing, manufacturing and distribution) play a prominent role throughout film. In numerous scenes, characters snort cocaine, smoke marijuana and become intoxicated.  Significant portrayal of alcohol use and cigarette smoking as well.
  • Language/Profanity:  Repeated profanities and obscenities throughout film, many of which are strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Extremely graphic sexual situations in several scenes, including couple groping one another in bed; nude strippers (above the waist); and a few sexual references.  Female character is typically scantily clad and often acts suggestively.
  • Violence:  Extremely intense and emotional portrayals of mafia-style violence throughout film, especially shooting, stabbing and blood.  A son watches his father brutally assassinated; a man slits his own throat and lies bleeding on floor; a police officer is shot at point blank range; hospital scenes with critically wounded people; a SWAT team raids an apartment and many people are killed, with graphic shooting, stabbing, fighting and bleeding; intense chase scene where numerous people are attacked and killed; in a warehouse shoot-out many characters are killed; police stalk criminals in a field, where some are shot and killed.  When no violence is onscreen, there is often the ominous threat of same.