The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell The Night Of,

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

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