This The Night Of review contains spoilers.
Not since Martin Scorsese’s After Hours has an unplanned date gone so bad. But that’s Manhattan, from Stanton Street to West 87th, and beyond, one wrong turn can turn into a labyrinthine dead end detour. HBO’s The Night Of is a suspense thriller in the league of the first season of True Detective, but without the supernatural spooks.
It is certainly dark enough, though, once it gets going. The Night Of opens on Pakistani-American student Nasir “Naz” Khan, played by Riz Ahmed, who tutors his school’s basketball star and gets an invite to a too-cool-for-school party. Ahmed is very effective at projecting a lifetime of social awkwardness and the inner conflicts that come before almost every sentence.
Everybody leads some kind of double life and Richard Price is always on top of that to make the point. In Blood Brothers, Stoney worked construction but wanted to service the community; all of the Wanderers in The Wanderers had some kind of secret; Al Pacino’s cop character was sleeping with Ellen Barkin’s target character in Sea of Love and forget about all the duplicity that went into every single character in Clockers, even when they’re doing the right thing. The man in a master no matter how many words he minces.
The main character, Naz, is no different, because he is different, just like everybody else. He goes to school outside his neighborhood. He’s a good student, at least he takes good notes. He’s popular enough on the court to get invited to a party thrown at a teammate’s ex-fiancé’s place. That’s game. And then he goes home to his own neighborhood, which might as well be part of the old world. Queens is the old world for a lot of people. Everybody speaks Urdu. His own family is guarded, not exactly racist, but in a defensive position.
That’s because people only see what they want to see of Naz, if they see him at all. At one point, he is an invisible Arab cabbie at another he’s asked if he left his bombs at home. I liked how Naz is ready to throw the two unwanted fares to the curb until he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the vision of loveliness that is the downtown angel. The series opener is loaded with foreshadowing, Every single clue is telegraphed as it is left.
On the night of Oct 24, 2014, Naz steals his old man’s cab, which he shares with two friends, to find a party at the elusive 55 Stanton Street, which would be located in a parking lot between Forsythe and Eldridge Streets. He is caught on dozens of cameras, scrutinized by passersby from bikers to chauffeurs to gas station attendants as he takes a mystery woman in search of a beach. They settle for a river but it’s already better than any party the shy tutor has ever attended.
He also partakes of some party favors that are very new to him. He pops what looks like X before he even makes it to 144 West 87th Street, where he downs tequila and lime and snorts whatever it is the seductive fare in the fancy apartment spills on her finger. He’s a good boy who does what he’s told, after all, even after she pushes past his boundaries. The audience doesn’t know how much time passes during the subsequent blackout, but it seems he’d still be under the influence of for the rest of the night of. The lady cop might have been a little more on target than it seems. Because it looks to the audience like she’s just being a hard-on in response to his polite wise ass. Thinking he is entitled to walk away from a breath test is just one too many illegal left turns. But the series is all about too many left turns.
What are the odds? Naz is brought right back to the scene of the crime. The cops unwittingly then let him stew in his own sweat in the back of the squad car as they investigate the crime scene. Cops can be assholes, though. If the kid didn’t wind up being the suspect, why did they have to leave him sitting in a car for hours? Just because he, politely, lipped off? The lead homicide detective brings one kid in as a witness just because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I mean, it works out in this particular case, but that’s TV. In real life, the chances are those kids would sit for hours for nothing.
The night watch just wants to go home, but they are as stuck as Naz once the body is found. I have to admit I jumped up and giggled uncontrollably when I saw Kevin Dunn as the obviously bedraggled head of the night homicide team. I’m used to seeing him on Veep and whenever he pops up in a role, like on True Detective, it’s like a backwards game of Where’s Waldo? He gets lost quickly after he unceremoniously dumps the case on lead detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp).
Speaking of bedraggled, John Torturro’s John Stone even borrowed his accent from Al Pacino, much less his razor and trench coat. He is the very picture of ambulance chasing mouthpiece. Of course, at his heart, like all ambulance chasers since Paul Newman in The Verdict, he’s looking for that one case that will redeem his career. And it wouldn’t hurt if it put him on the front page where high paying clients look for high profile attorneys. He doesn’t care if the kid’s guilty or not. It’s his job not to care. But he does. The ambulance chaser cares. That’s just trouble. HBO can work with that.
The Night Of is an ensemble piece, but Torturro and Riz Ahmed are a very solid center. There are already layers to unravel in their characters. Maybe as many as there are missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the killing. Does Naz remember? Did he do it? All signs point to him, but the girl is a mystery and plays him like a femme fatale instead of female fatality. Will he remember?
“The Beach” was written by Richard Price and directed by Steven Zaillian.