By now, regular readers of the site know the actors and directors we tend to favor, but there is one filmmaker we don’t get to talk about often enough: James Gray. Underrated and undersung, he’s become one of American cinema’s most distinct and powerful voices in the span of four films, stretching over eighteen years. While his works have never quite been box office smashes, they have gained currency with fans and critics, and we encourage you to seek out his films if you haven’t yet made the time. However, if you live in the New York area, you’ll get a chance to catch up with “We Own The Night” which will screen on Monday, March 26th at BAMcinematek, followed by a Q&A with the director.
Starring regular collaborator Joaquin Phoenix along with Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall, on the surface the film looks like a routine cop drama, but within is a simmering tale of fathers and sons, and of vengeance that both bonds and bruises two brothers. The ’80s-set story follows a nightclub owner who comes up against his policeman brother, who is cracking down on the drugs being dealt in his club. As a result he’s forced to reckon with his lifestyle, and how it could affect his family and his future. It’s a much more powerful and layered film than the marketing at the time suggested, and now that it’s back on the big screen, if you can make the trek out at BAM it’s worth seeking out. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Gray to talk about the film before Monday’s showing, and he discussed his difficulty in reflecting on his movies, and what his intentions were with the film. There are mild spoilers below.
“I don’t really look back. The thing is, I never, ever think about the movies once they’re done. If they do show somewhere at some point, I guess I have to, but if I can avoid it, I won’t [watch them],” Gray explained. “I mean, it’s just too painful. What you see is your mistakes projected repeatedly. You see what you want to do and weren’t able to, what you did do but was simply a mistake on the day. That’s just the things that are in your control, there are a whole host of things that aren’t. [You say to yourself] ‘I didn’t get the shot I want because of the weather, or I didn’t get the shot I wanted because the actor didn’t do what I wanted, or I didn’t come up with a good idea.’ There’s a million different reasons why things aren’t the way you wanted, so that’s not pleasant. But it’s not only for that reason. That’s part of it. A large part of it is also you simply don’t want to look back. Hopefully you’re growing as a creative person and you don’t want to be stuck in the past doing the same thing over and over again.”
That being said, the process of confronting his previous films is one he still finds illuminating, particularly as audiences bring their input and experiences to their interpretations of his films during a Q&A. And that feedback is deeply appreciated by the filmmaker. “[The questions] are much more interesting and intelligent observations than anything I’ve ever had about my own work. That’s just a fact. The people who watch your films always bring to it tremendously interesting things, things that you never contemplated. That’s one of the most rewarding things about being a movie director, because the work of art — if I may call any movie a work of art — I don’t want to say the author doesn’t matter, but the person who made it, the people who made it — in the case of the movie, it’s a collaborative process — it’s no longer theirs once it’s made. Once it’s made, it’s for the audience. It’s very rewarding when they come up with multiple readings…I think it’s fantastic. The best you could possibly ask for, is for them to bring their own thing to what it is you’ve done.”
However, that’s not to say Gray didn’t have is own specific goals in mind with the film. Set up with the confines of what appears to be a standard police film, the director aims to do something quite different. “I was trying to make a film about the pressures of conforming. And I was trying to make a film which was about a man who would be seen as doing the right thing, by the people around him, and even by society, but that would not be the right thing for him and would demand terrible emotional sacrifice from him. Because sometimes what people say is the right thing to do, is not the right thing to do for you,” he told us. But not everyone understood his approach. “So a lot of people looked at it said said, ‘Oh you know, it’s a rah-rah pro-cop movie. I love you is really corny for the ending.’ I always felt — and by the way, I’m not blaming the audience, quite the opposite, I blame myself for not making it clear enough — that what I was trying to do was, yes, he is a police officer now and that was his transformation, but he’s no longer with the woman he loves and that very sensate and entertaining existence he lived is over. And he’s never going to have that again. And to me, that’s sad, that’s not what he wanted his life to be. In some ways it’s good because you grow up and you change and you become a different person and in other respects it’s terrible because you’re not the person you dreamed you would be. So to me, that’s a complex, interesting thing if you can get it right.”
“The motive for making the film, was to make a movie which was about a certain emotional approach to the police. That the movie would be not at all be about the procedural aspects of being a policeman, but would be much more about the emotional life of being a policeman,” Gray continued about what he wanted to capture. “And I had seen a photograph on the front of the New York Times from, I believe, July of 2000, which was a funeral for a policeman who had died in the line of duty. And the photograph was of a bunch of grown men crying, their fellow officer had been killed. And the photograph is unbelievably troubling, because it shows all these grown men and they’re just weeping terribly, and it’s an aspect of police life you really don’t see in movies very much. You see the police procedural or the buddy-cop, but I don’t think you see the cop families, and the toll that it takes, all that much.”
Indeed, “We Own The Night” really is unlike any other movie about police officers you will see. Rich, intelligent and perceptive, it’s further evidence of Gray’s skills and insights as a filmmaker. “We Own The Night” screens on Monday, March 26th at 7:30 PM at BAMcinematek.