Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s “The Night Of” balanced cinematic production values with the miniseries capacity to dig deeper into details that are necessary for delivering the procedural goods.
The HBO miniseries was like “The Verdict” meets “Law and Order,” with its cultural and political overtones, exploring the ugliness of New York City’s criminal justice system, where it’s a matter of survival for everyone.
“The Night Of” is also Hitchcockian in its destruction of innocence and freedom. What starts as a sexual fantasy for Pakistani-American college student Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) – who picks up an alluring young woman, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), in his father’s cab – ends in a surreal nightmare when he wakes up and finds her brutally stabbed to death. Khan is an easy suspect for Detective Box (Bill Camp) and a gift for struggling attorney John Stone (Emmy-nominated John Turturro).
“The Night Of” particularly benefited from the Emmy-nominated contributions of cinematographer Fred Elmes (“Eraserhead”), editors Jay Cassidy (“Silver Linings Playbook”) and Nick Houy (“Billions”), and sound editor Nicholas Renbeck (“The Aviator”). Together, they brilliantly focused on the isolation of Khan, Box, and Stone. All three become trapped by the system and try to regain their humanity.
It Begins at “The Beach”
Editors Cassidy and Houy were nominated for the opener (“The Beach”) and it’s easy to see why: The construction is meticulous and the tempo appears to move in slow-motion. The editing adroitly focuses on Khan’s naïveté and his entrapment in the seduction, the murder, the investigation, and the incarceration.
The opener functions like a suspenseful time bomb with a slow burning fuse. It’s claustrophobic and driven with a sense of inevitable doom. Every move Khan impulsively makes leads to disaster. And viewers are right there right along with him, aware of all the bad signs, from the violent, self-destructive night with the victim, to fleeing the crime scene with the murder weapon in his pocket, to immediately being picked up by the cops for reckless driving, to the eyewitnesses. It’s all a procedural descent into despair for an innocent man.
Enter Stone, a neurotic, ambulance chaser, who happens to be at the right place at the right time at the Manhattan police station. He’s a tailor-made doppelgänger: Down on his luck and looking for relief from the eczema on his feet and his hard life. The editing focuses on him as the most unlikely ally.
“The Subtle Beast” Investigation
The work of sound editor Renbeck propels the second episode (“Subtle Beast”), which refers to the sly way Box tries to coax Khan into telling him the truth. The first scene sets the tone, when Khan recalls playing with the knife and the off-screen groans of the victim during sex during the camera’s slow ascent up the stairs of her townhouse.
We hear a plastic bag when the cops gather evidence. A cop bangs a drink machine at the precinct. Stone rattles about a dozen items into a security tray at the court house. In parallel, Box listens to an opera CD in his car; Stone rides the subway with its own street noise; and hip-hop plays in the ride to central booking for Khan.
Going into central booking, there are the sounds of the rain, the radio dispatch. a door closing. Inside audiences hear footsteps, distant yelling from prisoners, cuffs coming off. And a prisoner beating up another in agony because he’s too loud. These are the details that stand out and then linger in the memory.
The Descent into “Ordinary Death”
Elmes provides a visual strategy that alternates between light and dark. It begins at night with the discovery of murder victim on a street similarly stabbed like Andrea. The courthouse emphasizes its own darkness for Khan during the trial. There’s little light streaming in through the windows. The home of his parents is also bathed in darkness when his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) flips through baby pictures before a brick is hurled through a window.
Two of the prettiest shots are solitary ones: Stone walks out of his allergist’s office in Chinatown and past a shop with an ornamental cat waving its arm. Despite his allergy, Stone refuses to get rid of his cat. This segues to Box completing his pension fund form for his impending retirement in a bar at night, filled with pretty lights in the background. He hesitates before checking the “Ordinary Death” option.
Later, Khan steals an awkward kiss from his lead attorney, Chandra (Amara Karan), when they’re alone at the prison. Bathed in light and then darkness, it’s a desperate moment for both of them. And, at his retirement party at the same bar, Box ponders his future in the dark, with a set of golf clubs beside him. Maybe there’s more investigating to be done, after all.