HBOs “The Night Of” is an emotionally palpable, elegantly shot, slow burning mystery/drama that relies on great acting, a dark form, and wonderfully subtle intensity.
Based on the 2008 BBC series “Criminal Justice” written by Peter Moffat, HBO has turned the show into an 8-episode mini-series. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are the creators, writers and executive producers, who both tout impressive filmographies. Price previously wrote for “The Wire” (also HBO) and Zaillian has written for films that include “Moneyball” and “Schindler’s List”. Zaillian, who previously directed “All the King’s Men” in 2006, will be directing all but one episode.
The first episode, which was released online two weeks ahead of its on-air premiere, is a superbly crafted set up – a young woman gets brutally murdered in a normally homicide-free part of New York – for the aftermath of legal turmoil and search for missing, drug-fueled memories the protagonist will deal with for the rest of the series. When Naz (a well cast Riz Ahmed) spends a night with a woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) he just met, he wakes up to find her mutilated body with no recollection of what happened and soon after becomes the main, and only, suspect. He accepts the help of Jack Stone (John Turturro), an eczematous attorney who finds Naz’s case interesting. The casually-dressed Stone’s strict adherence to not wanting to hear Naz’s side of the story is problematic for the young college student who wants to explain his innocence.
Adding uncertainty to Naz’s charges is Detective Box (Bill Camp), who is pulled between the overwhelming evidence against Stone’s client and an inkling that he’s not getting the big picture. “What am I not seeing?” he asks Naz during initial questioning. He comes off sincere, understanding, venerably professional, but his nickname, the “subtle beast”, hints at how subdued his manipulations are.
The point is that nothing is as it seems. Not the crime and certainly not the people. Even Stone’s character is portrayed with having possible duplicitous intentions in taking on Naz’s case. And Andrea, the slain woman? Not even her estranged step-father Don (Paul Sparks) can answer all of Detective Box’s questions about her shady lifestyle.
Bringing levity to the series is, of course, Turturro. Originally, James Gandolfini was cast as Stone (you can see his name in the credits as executive producer) and appeared as Stone in the unaired Pilot. After his death, Robert DeNiro was attached to the role, before finally being given to Turturro. Turturro’s Stone is emotionally elusive but charming. We still don’t know why he’s representing Naz, but his scenes are alluring, whether he’s playing the part of do-as-I-say lawyer or throwing back the cheeky ball-busting talk at the precinct. Then there’s J.D. Williams (Bodie from “The Wire”) playing a passerby who saw Naz and Andrea together the night they met. Hopefully he’s given more scenes beyond the first episode, because he’s always a welcome personality in any cast.
The small bursts of levity add a nice balance with Ahmed’s scenes which are mostly gloomy. The intrusive monitoring and humiliating strip searches are alluding that he’s just as much a victim as anyone else in the case.
But by the time you get to the second episode, you’re so submerged in the story, you don’t care as much who it is, as long as the story-telling continues to pan out in the same gritty, unassuming manner. When the camera isn’t focused on Naz’s timorous bug-eyes, it understatedly dances around, landing on images of simple surroundings like the reverberating reflection of marching inmates in a rain puddle.
The series steers clear of being too political. Naz’s nationality comes into question a few times – he’s a Pakistani Queens native – but the series has yet to veer into the tricky xenophobic area that shows like “Homeland” and “24” love to nestle in (and exploit).
“The Night Of” offers viewers a glance at the rigid, often pockmarked criminal justice system in a way that’s more entertaining than it is didactic. It looks to explore some of the issues that mire the system it inhabits, while also being a character study of the type of people that get caught up in it, whether voluntarily or not. The search for the truth can often be just as satisfying as the answer, especially when you have a cast this good.