... I'm a bit predictable. I loved it. More later.
Addendum: 'Old Masters' aside, I think James Gray may count as my favorite American filmmaker working in Hollywood right now. Other contenders would probably be people who work on the fringes of the mainstream, Entertainment Weekly-type industry, sometimes but not always making these highly "visible" films (Linklater, Haynes). Gray's three features to date are bona fide respectable ensemble cast affairs, with fine production values, and storylines with themes revolving around family, loyalty, betrayal and revenge, community, ethnicity, and money. In fact if one demands freshness and variety from a filmmaker, Gray may not satisfy: his films are all resolutely New York-centric, all dealing with ties between crime, law, and economic institutions, and developing largely within the confines of Eastern European ('white ethnic') communities. He mines this milieu in the same way Ozu mines the Japanese middle class in his 1950s films, even using a lot of the same actors from title to title (plus Danny Hoch is in this one!), offering variations on a theme.
And while Gray's style may be perfectly in accord with mainstream conventions, even "classical," it's no surprise that they don't make a splash in the multiplexes. In addition to heavy issues, the mood throughout the films is often somber, lonely, claustrophobic. The narratives themselves feel a bit inorganic, perhaps here in We Own the Night most of all--there's a sense of tragedy that renders certain other elements of narrative almost inevitable. These aren't films that "take you into their world" as fully as a great yarn "should," which is not to say there aren't individual sequences which do this (such as one particularly heart-racing car chase in We Own). The films hold you back a bit too; you analyze precisely what's happening because there's a moral metacommentary inscribed, I'm sure, quite intentionally on the texts.
And then the framings and compositions--for example, the visual work that cleaves (in both senses of the word) Joaquin Pheonix's character to and from his father (Robert Duvall) in their first solo meeting, sitting next to each other in a church pew, photographed in shot-reverse shot once they start talking, but if I recall, with each man off-center, each close to the edge of the frame that the other would be sitting in, so that they appear "close" (and indeed are physically close in the diegesis) but unconnected by means of each cut. (And Duvall is facing towards Pheonix in a posture of parental desperation; Pheonix is hunched away.) It's not virtuoso filmmaking; it's simply expressive on the most basic level.
Gray's films are, appropriately enough, composed entirely in grayscale (tonally speaking). Even We Own the Night, which has more of a traditional 'good-versus-evil' structure than his previous two films, doesn't exactly come off as a ringing endorsement of the police force or civic duty. Life is more like a maelstrom and whichever side of cops or robbers the characters are on has less to do with moral qualities and more to do with family connections and the vagaries of the money flow in this underworld on the fringes of Manhattan finance and "spectacular" politics ...