I am the night review

Hard-boiled dialogue. Trips to the morgue. Boozy floozies. Sharp-dressed men lurking in the shadows. Dames, death and danger. We’re knee-deep in the world of pulp and noir. This is a highway trafficked by Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Where the women are imperiled, the men are corrupt, and not even all the stars of Hollywood can cut through the darkness. Say hello to I Am the Night.

The Wonder Woman team of director Patty Jenkins and actor Chris Pine re-team to tell this tantalizing tale, and the results should please viewers looking for something akin to True Detective meets L.A. Confidential. It’s not quite as good as either of those titles (I Am the Night very badly wants to be a James Ellroy novel come to life, but can never match Ellroy’s edge), but it does the trick.

Inspired by true events, I Am the Night follows two lost characters. One is teenager Pat (India Eisley). Pat is multiracial, and her skin is so light that some people have a hard time believing it. “I’m negro,” she tells people, more than once, and receives quizzical glances. Pat’s world gets turned upside down when she learns she was adopted, her real name is Fauna, and that she’s related to a wealthy, world-renowned doctor who lives in Los Angeles. The other lost character is Jay Singletary (Pine), a former hotshot reporter turned tabloid hack. Traumatized from his involvement in the Korean War, and sporting a pretty serious coke habit, Jay wants nothing more to get back on top. Both of these characters never quite fit in their respective surroundings, and they’re both desperately trying to find not just answers, but solutions. They move through their lives as if searching for one thing – one magical thing – that will solve all their problems instantly.

Jay and Fauna don’t know it at first, but they’re connected. As it turns out, it was a story about Fauna’s long-lost relative that sent Jay’s career spinning down the drain. That relative is Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a famous, and extremely eccentric gynecologist. Students of true crime will likely recognize Hodel’s name – he was one of the prime suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia. And in I Am the Night, he’s the ultimate boogeyman. A creepy, perverted weirdo who throws Eyes Wide Shut-style parties where everyone’s horny and wearing weird masks. Mays plays the character with an eerie calm and a subtle menace that almost instantly makes the character scary. Jay knows there’s something up with Hodel. But Fauna doesn’t – not at first, at least. She’s just excited over the prospect of reconnecting with a long-lost family member. But the closer she gets to Hodel, the more danger she places herself in.

Despite the potentially scandalous nature of the material I Am the Night is focusing on, the show is rather chaste – a symptom of being aired on TNT, perhaps. This results in a strange disconnect – you get the sense that the series wants to get gory and graphic, but has no way of getting there. It’s a hinderance, but not enough of one to derail I Am the Night completely.

I am the night tnt

What elevates the show is the talent involved. Jenkins, who directs two of the six episodes, brings a sharp eye to the proceedings. The opening shot of the season, in which her camera engages in an extremely long zoom in until it finds its target, is immediately engaging. It’s the first of several eye-catching camera movements the filmmaker employs, and it helps I Am the Night seem more cinematic. Pine, who worked so well with Jenkins before on Wonder Woman, is the real draw here. Proving once again that he really is the Best Chris, Pine makes his somewhat underwritten character charming as hell, even though he’s kind of a dick. The actor knows just how to blend likability with hopelessness, and we can easily buy him as a down-and-out coke addict.

Pine may be the big name draw for I Am the Night, but India Eisley is the true star. The actress has a disarming vulnerability that draws us into Fauna’s story, and makes us care for her. Eisley does very well here overall, although the script often requires her to do little more than react to things with wide-eyed confusion. I wish I could say she was playing a strong female character, but that’s just not accurate. In truth, like Pine’s Jay Singletary, Eisley’s Fauna is just a tad underwritten. Far too often, I Am the Night‘s script (written by Jenkins’ husband Sam Sheridan) tells, instead of showing. Characters announce their feelings and traits rather than embodying them.

I Am the Night sticks too close to the rules of by-the-numbers TV drama, but it’s slick, engrossing, and entertaining enough to hold you rapt. The fact of the matter is, it’s fun to watch Chris Pine stumble his way into one dangerous situation after another, dressed in a black suit with white sneakers. And it’s equally enjoyable to watch Eisley’s character as she draws closer and closer to trouble without realizing it. And just when you feel like you might lose interest – wham! – Connie Nielsen  shows up as Hodel’s perpetually drunk ex-wife, chewing the scenery with glee. I Am the Night probably won’t earn the coveted “Peak TV” badge, but it’s pulpy and thrilling enough to keep you tuning in…until something better comes along.

***

I Am the Night premieres January 28, 2019 on TNT.

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