A young man’s misadventure becomes the scene of a nightmarish night out in the big city
The rather poetically titled The Night Of (it’s a shortened version of court jargon “on the night of the crime”) is the latest in a long list of HBO dramas that have made television the place we look to for intelligent entertainment and wish fulfilment while, as Sopranos creator David Chase said, “movies went from something really interesting to what we have now”. And this fine new series — gripping, enthralling and scary — boasts some exceptional cinema artists who have moved over more than happily from film to the once derided medium of the smaller screen.
The series is directed by Steven Zaillian, who wrote not only Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay) but scripted American Gangster, Gangs of New York and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He also has directed three films, including the legal thriller A Civil Action in 1998 and the 2006 remake of All the King’s Men.
Zaillian co-created this new series with distinguished novelist and screenwriter Richard Price ( Clockers), who previously had written multiple episodes of The Wire, David Simon’s seminal series, defined by its creators as a novel for TV. Zaillian directed seven episodes of this new series; Oscar-winner James Marsh ( Man on Wire) directed the fourth. All were shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), regarded as the most versatile working in Hollywood and the resident director of photography for Paul Thomas Anderson.
The Night Of is certainly HBO’s most electrifying series since the original True Detective, and one of the biggest and most intricate — Zaillian references 470 pages of scripts and more than 200 speaking parts — and approached by its director and his collaborators as if it were in fact for the big screen. “I wanted it to have the cohesion and feeling of a film — in this case, a nine-hour film,” he says. “This meant things like no writers’ room and having featurefilm department heads and crews that were in for the long haul.”
The Night Of follows in almost minute detail the case of a young man accused of a terrible crime, and is based on the BBC’s 2008 series Criminal Justice, which was created by Peter Moffat and ran for two seasons. It followed the journey of an accused individual through the legal system and was first broadcast across five successive nights on BBC One. The first season starred Ben Whishaw as a young man who, hav- ing borrowed his father’s taxi for a night out, is arrested after a drunken and drug-filled night, though he is unable to remember committing any crime.
Zaillian and Price, instead of simply adapting the original to New York, changed the central character from a white guy to the son of Pakistani immigrants. “In the British series he’s a white kid because most of the cab drivers are white. Most of the cab drivers in New York City are not,” Zaillian told The Wall Street Journal, crediting Price with suggesting the switch. “That one decision affected the whole show.”
Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a quiet young guy from a good-living, law-abiding Pakistani family from Jackson Heights in Queens who, anticipating a big night out meeting girls at a party, borrows his dad’s yellow cab without his permission. He keeps getting lost, constantly flagged down by would-be passengers, and even a cruising police patrol, because he has no idea how to extinguish the cab’s for-hire light.
A pretty girl gets in and asks him to take her to the beach, then “just far”. She is Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), sensual, husky-voiced, intimidating, her eyes focused somewhere else. As he drives into the night Naz tells her on this evening he feels different and he has no idea why. Watching at this point you can’t help but feel anxious for this young man, so out of his depth with this woman, the victim as protagonist in the mystery. Only 10 minutes into the highly controlled story — every moment seems to foretell things we will need to remember — it’s impossible not to think this is going to be no mere police procedural and that the sense of ambiguity and anxiety is only going to increase.
Naz’s night goes from something pleasantly mysterious into the stuff of nightmares and he begins to doubt his sanity, much later dragged over by cops, not yet a suspect for anything, for doing an illegal left turn. He’s slowly pulled into the machinations of the justice system. Taken to the precinct station, he’s intimidated by the tough cops, brutalised suspects and callous hard-boiled detectives. It’s an environment in which guilt is pervasive and even the falsely suspected may begin to doubt their innocence.
Soon identified as having fled something terrible, he has become a crime scene, according to the lead detective, a gnarled, seen-it-all veteran called Box (Bill Camp). A terrified Naz talks freely before a jailhouse lawyer called Jack Stone (John Turturro), a slightly dishevelled advocate, spots him sitting terrified in a cell and takes on the case, despite the incriminating details the young man has offered up so freely.
The miniseries was the so-called “passion project” of James Gandolfini. When he died Robert De Niro committed to succeeding the Sopranos star but eventually pulled out for scheduling reasons. Gandolfini receives a posthumous executive credit on the seven-hour drama and played the role of ambulance chasing Jack Stone in the pilot. As he appears only in the scenes before its conclusion, recasting was no big problem. The wily Turturro was drafted to replace his old friend with whom he appeared in 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
Turturro seems ideally cast, bringing a slight touch of genre with his droll rumpled performance to a style that is rigorously naturalistic, almost documentary-like in its intensity.
Zaillian compares his filmic approach to Italian neorealism: “I know what has to be there because of the plot, but I’m interested in the scenes on either side,” he says. “The waiting around, cops wanting to go home because their shift is up, the kids whose lives will be altered completely because of these little things — that’s what makes it real.”
Price’s highly researched script is a masterclass in screen writing, characterised by what Simon calls, “the Pricean voodoo with street language”; with quiet wit he gets the way you think these cops, small-time lawyers and forensic scientists would speak.
But for all the super naturalism of Zaillian’s aesthetic, that sense that it is all happening almost in real time, there’s also something noirish in how it looks. He and his director of photography give us a splashily lit, metallic nightmare city of steel and glass even more chilling for the matter-of-factness of it all, the grim inevitability in the way the system ensnares this young man.
The city is a tableau of slashing white light, deep inky shadows, and richly luminous surfaces punctuated by flashes of chrome, steel and glass on parked cars, the mirrors of vending machines and surveillance cameras and dappled gothic hallways and stairwells. A large shiny black hearse is a harbinger of what’s to come. The precinct scenes, on the other hand, have a forbiddingly cinema verite feel to them, all hard grey authenticity.
It’s an achievement of considerable artistic power. This is one of those thrillers that you imagine from the start is going to maintain, protract and intensify suspense until the very end, and the first feature-length episode sustains a level of uncertainty that is rare in TV crime.
It’s almost as if they are toying with us, scene by scene, challenging our easy assumptions and suppositions about what may happen. Zaillian and Price build on our hope that things will be properly resolved and at the same time reinforce our suspicion that these expert crafters of fiction will dump us out of the moral fantasy that tells us mysteries are always solved on TV and the good people triumph. Sunday, 8.30pm, Showcase.
Riz Ahmed as Naz, whose night goes from pleasantly mysterious into the stuff of nightmares in The Night Of
John Turturro as jailhouse lawyer Jack Stone in The Night Of