Patty Jenkins wastes no time turning up the heat in her TNT limited series, I Am the Night. Based on a true story and created by author Sam Sheridan (Warrior), the crime story has Jenkins, who’s done remarkable work in the genre with Monster and The Killing, back at unnerving audiences with both suspense and drama after blowing the world away with Wonder Woman. While efficiently and effectively setting up the lost characters and cruel world of I Am the Night, Jenkins directs a pilot with an enticing sense of danger and another exciting performance from her Wonder Woman star, Chris Pine.
At first glance, young Fauna Hodel (India Eisley) and former all-star reporter Jay Singletary (Pine) share little in common, but once the first episode comes to a dark end, their two stories of identity and searching for the truth couldn’t be more interlocked. When they’re first introduced their days begin as usual: Fauna leaving for school and saying goodbye to her loving but alcoholic mother Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), and a coked-up Singletary snapping some valuable dirty photos and getting chased on a beach.
The student and the journalist’s paths will inevitably cross after Fauna snoops around her mother’s room and discovers the identity of her birth mother, the daughter of gynecologist George Hill Hodel, a monster of a man infamous for incest and suspected for murdering Elizabeth Short. (Yes, the Black Dahlia, whose horrifyingly dismembered corpse has its photo taken by Singletary in a scene Pine plays with both empathy and some great pitch dark humor.) Singletary has a history with Hodel, who destroyed his once hot and promising career as a journalist, but he may get another shot at taking the doctor down.
Pine is playing a pretty crass and aggressive character, and he doesn’t try to sugarcoat the former marine with his charisma, which there’s still plenty of in I Am the Night. Arguably, some actors look too good to play characters supposedly at their worst, so when somebody inevitably mentions they look hell, they still look pretty damn good for somebody who’s hit rock bottom. But without the usual beard or other trademarks of haunted men in movies, Pine and Jenkins convincingly convey the rotten state Singletary is in, especially in one standout disturbing shot that makes Pine look, believe it or not, borderline monstrous. It’s a very unnerving image with a very distinct and haunting expression from Pine; it’s one of the many striking shots from Jenkins and cinematographer Matthew Jensen (Wonder Woman 1984).
There’s another great piece of filmmaking where Jenkins makes a phone call chilling without fully clueing us in yet on why we should be scared. When Fauna calls her grandfather from a phone booth, who as the story goes forced his daughter to give his granddaughter away because the father was African-American, Jenkins shows the entire conversation in one foreboding shot. Phone calls are rarely this cinematic and dangerous, and Jenkins makes Fauna simply talking to her grandfather on the phone horrific, like speaking with the devil himself. The filmmaker can instill fear in an audience as powerfully as she did with awe and wonder in Wonder Woman.
Similar to Jenkins’ past work, which includes career-defining performances from Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron, she gets nothing but the best out of her actors in I Am the Night. She showed Pine’s charisma on full blast in Wonder Woman, but in the seedy LA mystery, she’s showing the actor in a darker, much harsher, and different light. It’s a juicy role from the look of it. While Pine may share the same first name as other movie stars, after a long run of surprising us with a variety of roles and performances, the pilot is a reminder he’s arguably in a league of his own right now.
There are some actors whose star quality is their greatest draw and skill, but Pine isn’t a movie star we watch for some manufactured persona or to see him save the world over and over again. Unlike a lot of stars, he has the talent to disappear seamlessly in all sorts of roles without making any big or showy transformations, as he does again in I Am the Night. He’s playing a familiar archetype on paper – a once promising and now defeated and rugged man – but Pine doesn’t make Singletary ever feel like an archetype.
Pine is probably more of a character actor than a movie star – who are usually the best kind of movie stars – based on how he shines in his most eccentric and offbeat roles. Plus, he can be as enigmatic in subdued roles like I Am the Night and Hell or High Water as he is in the Star Trek movies. The guy can do it all. In the case of I Am the Night, he naturally fits another time period (again) – which is another skill not all modern movie stars have in their toolbox. With almost every new role and project Chris Pine takes on, he continues to show greater depth and range, which luckily for us, we’ll continue to see more of through Jenkins’ eyes.
The TNT miniseries I Am the Night debuted at the AFI Film Festival and premieres in January.