Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Doing Time: HBO's The Night Of

John Turturro and Riz Ahmed in HBO's The Night Of.

Note: the following post contains some spoilers.

In HBO's eight-part procedural drama, The Night Of, which concluded this past Sunday night, everyone is doing time. This temperamental thriller, which is based on the 2008-09 BBC series, Criminal Justice, is about the grinding wheels of the system and how it wears down its servants as much as it does the suspects. Unlike True Detective, which imposed a weary existentialism on a conventional crime story, The Night Of reaches inside the conventions of the detective genre to create a darkly lit tone poem where justice becomes merely a flicker of light. The mini-series, written by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, is clearly set in post-9/11 New York with its mood of suspicion and fear regarding race and religion, but it also reflects an exhaustion where ideals and purpose have been replaced by expedience. That exhaustion contributes to some of the dramatic weaknesses of The Night Of, but if the story sometimes falls into a kind of stasis, the characters don't. The Night Of is about people who've been lulled to sleep but slowly get woken by a dawning nightmare of what they've become.

The Night Of begins in its first few episodes with a propulsive thrust. Naz (Riz Ahmed) is a Pakistani-American and Muslim whose reckless act of wild spontaneity with a beautiful and troubled white woman, Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia), ends in her murder. Because he flees from the scene with convincing circumstantial evidence, he's charged with the crime. While awaiting the charges, he's met in his holding cell by attorney Jack Stone (John Turturro), a lawyer with severe psychosomatic eczema, who cuts quick plea deals since no one he gets to represent is ever innocent. But Stone has a hunch that this unlucky young man just might not be guilty, so he takes on his cause. The lead detective, Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who is nearing retirement, knows this may be his last investigation. Tiredly sizing up the evidence, he proposes to the lead prosecutor, Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin), that it's a slam-dunk even though some part of him suspects it's not. When Naz's parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) can't afford Stone's legal rates, they turn to Alison Crowe (Glenne Headly), an ambitious defense attorney who takes the case pro bono under the assumption that Naz will plead out for less served time. But when he refuses to do so, Crowe quits. Her assistant, Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), stirred by Naz's claims of innocence, decides with Jack Stone to go to trial with the intent of winning the case. As the defense team methodically chases down clues and suspects, Detective Box does likewise. Meanwhile, we watch as Naz turns from a scared young man into a more hardened prisoner.

Pete Postlethwaite and Ben Whishaw in BBC's Criminal Justice.

The Night Of stays pretty faithful to the plot of Criminal Justice, but the implications of the story are radically different. In Criminal Justice, Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) is a happy, white middle-class lad who has a drunken and drug-filled evening with a young lady he meets and who ends up murdered. But where Coulter is an innocent adolescent pulled into a living nightmare (and Whishaw is extraordinary at making us feel the pure terror of incarceration), Naz is a Pakastani-American growing up in New York after 9/11 who resorted to acts of violence to both protect himself growing up and assert his need to belong. Criminal Justice is terrifically written (by Peter Mofatt) and very well acted – especially by Ben Whishaw, Bill Patterson as Detective Box, Con O'Neill as Stone, Lindsay Duncan as his barrister, Pete Postlethwaite as his mentor in prison and Vineeta Rishi as Kapoor – but its intricate plotting works itself out too quickly in the end. Criminal Justice also gets inside an area of police corruption concerning the use of snitches that isn't fully satisfying and that The Night Of chooses to avoid.

The Night Of occasionally gets a little languid so that Price and Zaillian become sleepy in providing enough material for the actors to shape their roles. For instance, Amara Karan is lovely as the junior attorney, but when she begins to have romantic feelings for Naz and heedlessly acts them out, she hasn't been given enough motivation to suggest why. We could guess that it's her inexperience, her identification with his plight as a Pakistani-American, or an expression of the bonding between attorneys and their clients that comes with the intense heat of a case, but Karan gives us too little to go on. (The scene comes right out of Criminal Justice, but it makes more sense there since Coulter's vulnerability is what reaches Kapoor emotionally.) There are fascinating scenes with Naz's family, where the father (who shares the taxi that Naz borrows the night of the crime) has to deal with his Pakistani partners who are now deprived of their livelihood; and his mother, who grapples with whether her son is innocent and guilty of the crime partly due to her discomfort at his attraction to hedonism. But you sometimes want more from the characters in their milieu than we get.

The lead performances are all you expect and more. Riz Ahmed, who was equally astonishing as Jake Gyllenhaal's reluctant partner filming violent accidents for TV news in Nightcrawler, accomplishes a similar kind of transformative acting to Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, when he went from being an amiable war hero just out of college and slowly morphed into a criminal overlord. Ahmed gradually shows us the pockets of rage and guile that reside behind his doe-eyed affability. John Turturro as Stone has more to work with than his British counterpart in Criminal Justice, and it's to his advantage. A little like Toshiro Mifune's flea-bitten samurai in Yojimbo, Turturro is a shaggy dog out of step who doesn't have the respect of those in the system, or from the family he lost to divorce. (Also, like Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Turturro's Stone has an affection for cats – even though he's allergic to them – and has an empathy for a case that others who are smarter than him don't.) Turturro gives a quiet, measured and sympathetic performance that never once turns sappy, or reaches for redemption. James Gandolfini was originally cast in the role, and when he died tragically, Robert De Niro briefly took over, but a scheduling problem lead to Turturro's getting the part.

Jeannie Berlin as Helen Weiss in The Night Of.

It's a shame that we don't get to see Jeannie Berlin much on television, or in the movies, but she makes a huge impact in The Night Of. While Helen Weiss is a master at being the sharp prosecutor who plays with her cards close to her chest, Berlin has pockets of sensitivity that gnaw at her armour. Weiss's breathing rhythms – carefully expressive – hold back as much as they reveal about her character. Michael K. Williams, who was so memorable as Omar, the gay Robin Hood gangster in The Wire, is smoothly seductive as Freddy, Naz's prison mentor. Williams is canny and subtle about how he lets you perceive the sense of loss Freddy feels towards a life he pissed away as a professional boxer and the power he now possesses in prison. His attraction to Naz is based on seeing both the innocence in Naz that he can't claim for himself, and the anger underneath that innocence which Freddy now identifies with. Bill Camp's Detective Box isn't conceived as ambiguously as Bill Paterson's Box in Criminal Justice, but Camp is shrewdly masterful at showing us a man who can't completely turn away from what his instincts tell him is true. (While it's funny that this loner detective also consoles himself listening to operatic arias in his car, Camp is so good he doesn't really need this writer's conceit to further colour his hermetic nature.)

Although The Night Of delves into a contemporary critique of race relations, it unfortunately ends up short-changing some of those issues (especially in its overall depiction of black Americans). For instance, on the night of the murder, Naz is accosted by two black men who see him with a white woman and they call him out as a terrorist. The scene tells us something of how the practice of being marginalized in a racist society can be complex. But this moment never gets developed into something more compelling than an act of race baiting. The Night Of sometimes suffers from having a lot on its mind and not giving enough time (or forethought) to filling out the blank spots in the story. However, the flaws do little to damage the overall impact of the series. The Night Of is a refresher course in the kind of thesis drama that respects the intelligence of its audience. And like the best television, it always has you asking for more.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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