Beyond the Multiplex

Is "We Own the Night" a rip-roaring shoot-'em-up or an ambiguous, subversive saga? Plus: Michael Caine and Jude Law get sadomasochistic in "Sleuth."

Topics: Beyond the Multiplex, Movies,

Beyond the Multiplex

When I first saw James Gray’s gritty New York cop thriller “We Own the Night” at Cannes earlier this year, I was dimly aware it was a movie that didn’t surrender all its secrets on first viewing. Set in the coke-and-murder Gotham of the late ’80s, as the Russian mob is beginning to supplant the city’s traditional mafia organizations, this tremendously crafted crime drama with an A-minus Hollywood cast — Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Duvall and Eva Mendes — struck many viewers as a strange choice for the world’s most prestigious film festival. There was even scattered booing at the first press screening, and while that’s a known and unpredictable hazard of Cannes, it can nonetheless have a long-term ripple effect on a movie’s reputation. (See also “Marie Antoinette.”)

If some viewers saw “We Own the Night” as an old-fashioned cops-and-robbers, good vs. evil morality fable, or even as a patriotic paean to the Reagan-era “war on drugs” — and many more are likely to see it that way — does that mean that’s what it is? We travel here into murky areas of aesthetic theory, like the question of artistic intention and a work’s unknowable future reception. Is it really possible, as Gray suggests in our conversation, for a film to succeed on two apparently contradictory levels at once, as a “popcorn, pulpy” shoot-’em-up as well as a story that is morally ambiguous and even subversive? (Listen to a podcast of my conversation with Gray here.)

For now, let’s just say that “We Own the Night” is an intriguing blend of mainstream audience-pleaser and a more subtle, even intellectual agenda. There’s a peculiar undertow of grim determinism beneath Gray’s mythic tale of rival brothers joining forces to defeat a common enemy, and it’s more than a matter of neo-noir style or fashionable nihilism. Gray’s protagonist, Bobby Green (Phoenix), begins the story as a hedonistic rebel, running a hot Brooklyn nightclub for the mob. But blood is apparently thicker than cocaine, and more powerful than his hot Latina girlfriend (Mendes). When manhood calls, Bobby must undertake a long and painful journey back toward his dad (Duvall) and brother (Wahlberg), both heroic cops and upstanding family men. Is this story about a man who is embracing righteousness, or a man imprisoned by destiny? That’s up to you.

This week’s deluge of fall releases also brings us the intriguing (and intriguingly botched) remake of the campy two-hander “Sleuth,” via writer Harold Pinter, director Kenneth Branagh and stars Jude Law and Michael Caine, along with a loopy and adventurous magical-realist fable made in Mongolia and a sly documentary about the crop that is distorting America’s agricultural economy and making us so damn fat. Also this week, but not covered in depth: New Yorkers can catch the rerelease of “La Chinoise,” one of the most baffling, maddening and hilarious films in the entire baffling, maddening, etc., career of Jean-Luc Godard. Will it provoke a new college-campus wave of Maoist terrorism? (Stephanie Zacharek reviewed Anton Corbijn’s terrific “Control,” about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, earlier this week, and you can read my interview with Valerie Harper about her one-woman film, “Golda’s Balcony,” on Friday.)

“We Own the Night”: The rise of the Russian mob, by way of Clint Eastwood, Francis Coppola, Shakespeare and Louis Althusser
During the course of my lunch with James Gray, he confessed that he was still a virgin when he went to college (and showed me his freshman ID from USC to prove the point). He called himself a poor husband and father because he’s a workaholic filmmaker whose wife is at home with two babies (aged 21 months and 4 months). He told me his cholesterol is “through the roof” and complained that the producers of his forthcoming film subjected him to thorough medical testing. “I’m Jewish,” he said. “I’m not meant for this. I’m genetically selected to sit on my ass and be an accountant: ‘Morris, the numbers just don’t add up.’”

Despite all that, Gray does not come across as the supporting character in a Woody Allen film. He’s an exceedingly calm and thoughtful guy who’s trying to do something almost unknown in contemporary Hollywood: make old-fashioned, populist movies with hidden dimensions and some intellectual heft. After his modest indie hit “Little Odessa” and the follow-up “The Yards,” Gray has attracted a modest following as a chronicler of unfashionable, outer-borough New York reality.

With major studio backing and Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in the leading roles (both of which feature some unexpected twists), “We Own the Night” should be Gray’s breakthrough to popular success, and a new level of access to stars, power and money. But as Gray is well aware, an artist or entertainer (pick your noun) who achieves that also surrenders control of his work to some extent. I see “We Own the Night” as a tremendously crafted genre thriller whose surface is at war, so to speak, with its subtext. This film is likely to reach a mass audience that will see it as an uncomplicated story about “traditional values,” like the importance of family and the heroism of cops. And as they say in Hollywood, the audience is never wrong.

Gray has yet to see David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” the other Russian mob movie of the season, but says manfully, “I love Cronenberg, and I’ve heard great things.” The films are quite different in terms of tone and thematic preoccupations, but there’s no doubt that both are revisionist updates of the thriller genre. Both movies also feature a dark-hearted but grandfatherly mob boss — played by Armin Mueller-Stahl in “Eastern Promises” and Moni Moshonov in “We Own the Night” — and both characters, Gray concedes, are almost certainly based on the same legendary real-life figure.

Gray had just attended a preview screening of his film that left him unsettled. Not because people didn’t like his movie, but because they did. “You make your movie and you have certain things you want it to be about,” he said, “and people respond to something you didn’t intend at all. They can love it, but it can still be very disturbing.”

Tell me what you think people saw in your film that made you uncomfortable.

Let me explain it this way. When I was just out of college I went to see “Unforgiven,” the Clint Eastwood movie. Which I loved, and the audience loved it too. At the end of the film, after Clint Eastwood has his final confrontation with the Gene Hackman character, he then proceeds to kill everybody on the scene, including a man who’s wounded and moaning, who poses no threat to him. Through all that, the audience was thrilled, having a wonderful time. My own feeling was that the picture was really not about that at all. Part of what made it wonderful for me was how it had completely undercut that idea. I felt that the audience was so primed and ready to understand a Clint Eastwood movie as being this, that they didn’t understand that the Clint Eastwood movie was actually about that.

I’m not comparing my movie to “Unforgiven,” but I had intended my film to have a revisionist edge in a way. Joaquin’s character, Bobby Green, could be seen as wonderful and terrific by the people in the film for his transformation and redemption, but the movie would be saying something quite different. Joaquin was begging me to reshoot the ending: “Come on, dude. I’m playing it too obvious, that I’m depressed and I don’t want to be here.” I said he was not being too obvious, and seeing what people will say after seeing the film, I know I was right.

OK, well, we won’t give anything more away than that, except to say that the last scene between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg is amazing. But doesn’t this kind of incomprehension happen with action films, with thrillers? Where a lot of the audience wants to see them in a pretty simplistic fashion.

It happens with films that use genre, actually. I’m not going to liken myself to John Ford, but if you look at reviews of “The Searchers,” the evaluation of it was very dismissive and even outright condescending to Ford, who was a real genius. Genre gets us stuck, because it seems so instantly formulaic.

Right. It can get audiences and critics stuck in different ways. This is simplistic, but audiences embrace it without looking below the surface, and sometimes critics reject it without looking below the surface.

When I saw “The Godfather” on its 25th anniversary at the Mann Chinese Theater in Hollywood, I had never seen it in a theater, with an audience. At the end, when Michael Corleone lies to his wife after having murdered everybody, including his brother-in-law — she says, “Is it true?” and he says, “No.” And the audience broke out into applause. It was very instructional. Because it’s not a joyous moment; it’s a heartbreaking moment. And yet the structure of the story is so ironclad that he’s the king, and you must respect him. The movie is genius, but it often gets misread, I think.

That’s the way the world works; you can’t begrudge it. If you’re an artist — and in my case I use the term loosely — you do what you do, and then it’s really for the audience to decide. It’s left me. Once it’s gone I really have no say in the matter.

Well, on the surface this movie is old-fashioned storytelling. I would even call it premodern storytelling. It’s a story about a guy who can’t escape his destiny, and a story about the ties of family, the tie between brothers. Blood is thicker than water, all that stuff.

Well, yeah. But then you try to subvert that idea. I would never say that cinema’s calling is only to do straightforward stories. But what is interesting for me, as an American — what we used to do very well was tell stories. Our narratives were wonderful. So I want to tell a story in an old-fashioned way, sort of, but to constantly subvert the expectations of the story. If you say “Two brothers team up to fight crime,” it’s the most hackneyed and pedestrian story. If it’s “Two brothers team up to fight crime, and it destroys them both,” now you’ve got a twist that is quite different. Maybe it’s not different, but at least it’s subversive. It’s not something that makes you comfortable.

I was trying to steal a mythic structure, so on the surface it would feel like a narrative-driven, popcorn, pulpy movie. But if you look beneath the surface, what you find is something quite different. Premodern, I don’t know about that. When you write something, you don’t think in these terms. But now that you’ve said it, it makes perfect sense. I stole liberally from “Henry the Fourth” for this movie. That doesn’t mean I think it’s as good as Shakespeare, but you want to steal from the best. He’s the king of narrative, the best storyteller that has ever been.

It did seem, from the reaction at Cannes, that some critics thought you were endorsing the “war on drugs” of Reagan years. I kind of had that thought myself, to be honest. Or at least your attitude was not clear to me, which is a little different.

It’s difficult for me to respond, because that’s so antithetical to what I had in mind. It was the last thing I had on my mind. What I like to do is say, well, the characters in the movie believe in X, Y and Z. That doesn’t mean the movie is endorsing that position. You wouldn’t watch the Nazi characters in “The Pianist” and think that’s an anti-Semitic film. That would be insane. Just because somebody in the film is saying something about good vs. evil, that doesn’t mean the film takes that view. There is a good vs. evil conflict in the film, but the struggle is really inside one person.

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It’s fashionable to say, you know, the cops are jerks, they’re all corrupt. For me, that’s a little glib. And I don’t think the film has a simple idea of good and bad. Joaquin’s character has to change his life completely to become a “good” person, a law-abiding person. What I was intending was that the film would say at the end that he’s no longer the same guy, and that’s not a good thing. He became a police officer and abandoned his true self. So society would look at him as good, but he would be a very different man.

That’s why I don’t think the film is some weird Reagan-era, drug-war-endorsing thing. If you take that view of art, you would never be able to make anything but agitprop. If that’s someone’s view of the film, I must say it’s lazy. They’re not willing to look below the surface of the film.

There’s also this intriguing and disturbing element to the film that maybe is more profound, and that’s the idea that Bobby really does not have free will. He does what he does, but it’s not a choice. That’s what I mean by premodern. There’s this conception of inexorable, irresistible fate.

It’s a disturbing thing because it goes against the governing ideologies that enable society to function. In American life, the Horatio Alger myth is one of them. The idea that somebody poor can pull himself up by his bootstraps and become successful is central to American life.

As far as the idea of free will goes, the major thing I came across was the writing of Louis Althusser [the French Marxist philosopher]. He spoke about the fact that we are beholden to an ideological state apparatus. Your ability to decide for yourself — good and evil, do I turn left or right, this product is what I want, this is what I want to watch — all this stuff is not about you choosing. It’s about the way you have been programmed from birth by culture, language and ideology. Your expectations and your desires are not your own, really; they have been created for you. I found this to be very powerful. If you combine that notion with the central Horatio Alger myth, you’ve got two ideas that are totally in conflict, and are destined to create resentment.

You talk about my films being premodern. I guess they are in style, but in substance you’d have to say they were informed mostly by post-1968 post-structuralist thinking.

Well, that’s definitely going to pack the theaters.

Yeah. That’s OK. This stuff is deep background anyway. If 10 people get it, you’re the happiest guy in the world. What fun is it to watch a movie where that stuff is just spelled out?

So, look. Let’s say the movie is a hit, and you have some level of discomfort with some of the popular response. Then there’s some small percentage of people who grasp what you’re trying to do — in that case, have you succeeded?

That’s all you can ask for. If some people get it, great. If nobody gets it, you did your best and you move on. Next case. My life is really, really, really good. I have a great wife and two incredible kids. And I make movies, which is an incredible job. Francis Coppola once said, “Filmmaking is great. It’s one of the last dictatorial positions in an increasingly democratic world.” It’s an amazing job and the pleasure is in the doing. You’re able to utilize all these weapons: music, theater, dance and photography.

Look, obviously you want your film to be perceived the way that you made it, and you want lots of people to see it and all that. But you cannot derive pleasure from that, because if you do, the point is missed. There’s a lot of caprice about the way the world will perceive you and receive your picture, and you can’t control that. Movies are a popular culture medium. It always takes a little bit of time for people to catch up to the stuff that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve. I’m always of the faith that they do catch up, so I try not to worry about it too much. What you think of a movie doesn’t matter today. It might matter 10 years from now.

“We Own the Night” opens nationwide Oct. 12.

“Sleuth”: Oh, that vicious and bitchy (and fa-a-abulous) Harold Pinter! Easily his best work since “La Cage”!
There’s no way to explain the bizarre blend of high style and high camp that is the brand-new remake of Anthony Shaffer’s hoary two-man stage puzzler “Sleuth,” which has been reworked by screenwriter Harold Pinter, of all people, and director Kenneth Branagh (ditto). If you’re the right age, this clever, funny and profoundly phony play was inflicted on you at some point, either in its numerous stage incarnations or in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s quasi-legendary 1972 film version with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. If you’re not, well, I suppose this new version has got to stand on its own, and good luck with that. (The Mankiewicz film is not currently available on DVD, although you can find it used, at high prices.)

While it would be totally misguided to say there wasn’t a homoerotic subtext to the original “Sleuth,” Pinter and Branagh have apparently decided to turn the whole exercise — in which a famous writer engages his wife’s much younger lover in a series of dangerous schemes and games — into a sadomasochistic intergenerational encounter. The wife that handsome Milo Tindle (Jude Law) is apparently boffing, and whom grizzled crime novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine) claims he wants to be rid of, never appears at all. And you could describe the running contest between Andrew and Milo as a series of rape-like violations, designed to determine which of them is the real man, and which of them the bitch. (Andrew’s first exclamation is, “Well, I’ll be buggered!” Milo responds, “Exactly.”)

Caine, who himself played Milo in 1972, is of course wonderful as the faux-convivial, profoundly embittered Andrew, hiding his secret vulnerabilities behind the chilly gray-blue interior of the vast, technophiliac mansion where he receives Milo. And one could argue that Milo is the ultimate Jude Law character, stretching his lanky, androgynous fame from one extreme to the next. At some moments, he’s a girlish and flirtatious boy-toy; at others, he’s a thuggish London lad bent on satisfying his most primitive desires.

There are ideas galore in “Sleuth,” far more of them than the movie can comfortably hold. Andrew’s house is full of sinister security cameras and surveillance equipment, which the writer and director want us to see as, you know, metaphors for something. Almost every time either character opens his mouth, double entendres pour out. Long, long before we reach the point when Milo weepingly protests that he’d rather screw dogs or goats or boys than Andrew’s wife, or when Andrew dons the missus’ robe and jewelry, the film’s homo-cryptic agenda — which seems simultaneously pornographic and homophobic — has become obvious.

“Sleuth” is well acted, and directed by Branagh with chilly, distant ingenuity. It has a certain edge and daring, or more to the point it pretends to. That goes some distance toward concealing that “Sleuth” is a horrible mismatch of writer and material, and that the story (if we must dignify this fevered paranoid fantasy with that term) is absolute nonsense. For five minutes I thought this movie was likely to be a coldhearted masterpiece, and then I reluctantly grasped that it possesses no level of psychological reality at all, unless you want to argue that these two cretinous closet-cases deserve to be trapped in the same universe forever, so self-conscious before the camera that they never quite get around to taking their clothes off.

“Sleuth” opens Oct. 12 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider national release to follow.

Fast forward: A haunting fable from the Mongolian steppes (and skyscrapers); how “King Corn” is killing us
Belgian director Peter Brosens and his American partner Jessica Woodworth have been making documentaries in Mongolia, on and off, since the mid-’90s, but nothing on their résumé prepares you for “Khadak,” an audacious new narrative film that is surely one of the year’s signature accomplishments in world cinema. For excellent reasons, we’ve grown used to the idea that people in the developing world should tell their own stories, but there is no hint of condescension or exoticism about “Khadak,” which combines the strangeness of its Mongolian setting and story with a Western art-film vocabulary that suggests Andrei Tarkovsky, or even the great Soviet-era magical-realist Sergei Paradjanov.

Partly downbeat realism, partly social satire and partly pure dreamtime, “Khadak” tells the story of Bagi (Khayankhyarvaa Batzul), the young son of a nomadic family forced off the land by the Mongolian government after a plague allegedly spreads through their animals. Bagi is either an epileptic or an heir to his clan’s traditional shamanic talents or both, but once trapped in a high-rise apartment building in a mining town, he becomes torn between a charismatic group of rock ‘n’ roll rebels and his increasingly apocalyptic visions. With its stunningly beautiful images of the stark, post-communist surroundings of modern Mongolia, “Khadak” dares to be nonlinear, poetic and mysterious, but without ever lapsing into cliché or obscurantism. A marvelously acted, brave and absorbing film. Catch it whenever and wherever you can. (Opens Oct. 12 at Cinema Village in New York, Oct. 19 at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and Nov. 2 at Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle, with more cities to follow.)

A deceptively intelligent new entry in the regular-Joe documentary genre, “King Corn” follows two recent Yale graduates as they “return” to the rural county in Iowa where (by coincidence) both of them have ancestral roots. Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis meet some distant relatives, but also decide to grow a single acre of corn, the Hawkeye State’s signature crop, and then follow it as far into the food chain as they can. Cheney and Ellis are a virtually indistinguishable pair of post-fraternity fellows in backward Red Sox caps, but the movie they made with director (and Ellis’ cousin) Aaron Woolf is a chilling one.

Propped up by irrational subsidies and massive doses of fertilizer and herbicide, Midwestern corn production reaches new highs almost every year. Most of the golden grain is not going to wholesome summertime dinners but rather into the production of cattle feed and high-fructose corn syrup for soft drinks and other sweetened products. Corn is ubiquitous in the American diet even if you think you’re not eating it, and the deranged overproduction of corn instituted in the Nixon era has directly contributed to epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Thankfully, this information arrives via a graceful and frequently humorous film that captures the idiosyncrasies of its characters and never hectors. (Opens Oct. 12 at Cinema Village in New York, Oct. 19 in Boston and Washington, Oct. 26 in Los Angeles and Nov. 2 in San Francisco, with more cities to follow.)

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