Late-1980s New York. Discos thrive. Drugs are popcorn. Violence is Kool-Aid. The Russian Mafia ascends the underworld ladder. The mix gets what it needs: a brother who’s a caring cop, Joe (Mark Wahlberg) and another who’s good-hearted but impressionable night club-owning lout, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix). Add Dad (Robert Duvall), a police captain (Bert), and you get good brother vs. bad brother with Dad in the middle.
If the construction is hackneyed, the people are not. Bobby likes the role of renegade, flirting with the dark side and mocking his cop brother, until shots ring out. Joe’s been gunned down by the people Bobby runs with. Suddenly, out-of-his-league Bobby has to make up his mind, pick sides, do the right thing.
Director James Gray (“Two Lovers”) doesn’t oversimplify. Bobby never entirely sure what he’s doing. He’s certainly not noble. His revenge is muted. Bert may object to his son but he refuses the caricature of the judgmental.
What you get is slow and simmering family drama with loyalty at the core and New York crime as a backdrop. The strength of the film are Phoenix and Duvall, who are emissaries of noir melancholy; they believe in good but seem a little defeated from start to finish. It’s a no-win movie whatever the ending.
Its most unusual aspect may be Amanda (Eva Mendes), Bobby’s Puerto Rican girlfriend. She’s drop-dead gorgeous but spared the role of incidental love interest. Instead, she’s loving, worried, senses that her guy is coming apart at the seams.
Though Gray cares deeply about character and prompts several fine performances, the story’s brotherly framework ironically limits its depth.