The Night Of review: a frightened young man on the road to hell

This HBO murder drama slides into something deeper about the randomness of justice, with Riz Ahmed a hypnotic lead character

Nasir Khan is a good boy: polite, honest, innocent, adorable, A-grade college swot, mummy’s boy, aunties’ boy. But he is still a boy, so the unexpected invitation by some less good boys to a downtown party with the promise of “mad females” (hot girls I think) is irresistible – to the extent that when Naz’s ride falls through he nicks his dad’s yellow cab (this is New York). It – the night of The Night Of (Sky Atlantic) – will be a big one, the biggest of Naz’s life.

The night starts badly, relatively. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or how to switch on the cab’s off-duty light. People get in, he politely asks them to get out – Naz K ain’t no Travis B, it would appear. Things look up when a “mad female” gets in and asks to be taken to the beach. Now it doesn’t seem to matter so much that Naz isn’t going to make the party.

They don’t get to the beach, but to the river, by a bridge, where they pop pills under a full moon. Then they go back to her beautiful brownstone for tequila shots, cocaine, the knife game (a bit like Russian roulette only with knife and hand on table instead of gun against temple). And sex.

But the best night of Naz’s life soon turns into the worst when he wakes, blurry-headed, in the early morning to find her dead, with multiple stab wounds. Naz remains free for a while, but is then picked up for a traffic offence (another wrong turn, at a junction, in his life – understandable in the circumstances). Lovely, doe-eyed Naz is now chief, and only, suspect in the murder of Andrea Cornish (she only gets a name posthumously). Suddenly so much that has come before – CCTV at the tunnel, a garage stop, an unpleasant encounter on the street – takes on enormous significance; what seemed like random events, part of Naz’s night out, now look like a big pile of evidence against him, in court. DNA isn’t doing him any favours either. Or the knife in his pocket.

The Night Of has moved on from procedural crime drama to something more about the randomness of justice, with a lot of the brilliant first series of the Serial podcast about it (the fact that Naz is from a Pakistani-American family adds to this).

The sharp-eyed television addict will also recognise that it is based on the first series of the BBC’s also brilliant Criminal Justice, written by Peter Moffat. But Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s adaptation, taking in a new city, new prejudices, post-9/11 Islamophobia etc, more than justifies its existence and makes it a thing in its own right. A very excellent thing. With a hypnotic performance from Riz Ahmed as a young man whose world is closing in on him, doors slamming with metallic clunks. Excellence, also, from Bill Camp as the weary cop in no doubt about whodunnit; and from John Turturro as the scruffy, scratchy (he has eczema) just-about-a-lawyer who appoints himself to Naz’s defence and who we’ll be seeing a lot more of as this gets into the legal nitty-gritty.

A Guardian moan: that the one major female character is horribly and graphically killed off, less than half an hour in. It gets a bit better, with Naz’s mother, who will become a bigger and stronger as this goes on; also the prosecutor and other female lawyers. And did the racist outburst (“did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa?”) have to come from an African American, who also happens to be a big-time weed enthusiast? Hmmm, objection slightly sustained, though there are also African Americans who are neither racists nor stoners, like the excellent traffic cop (also, undeniably, a woman, though, also undeniably, a relatively minor character).

Moans over. The Night Of looks stunning. Is there maybe a little nod to Scorsese in this opener, nighttime Manhattan lights at taxi cruising speed, windscreen reflection, rear-view glances, Ahmed a 21st-century De Niro? There’s a zooming in and out focusing thing going on – are you lookin’ at this right here, or that back there? – that is utilised to the limit (OK, I got a little weary of it). But it adds to the feeling of dazzled confusion when a frightened young man is suddenly caught in the headlights on the road to hell.

Is Naz innocent, though? We know stabbed her once, even if she was egging him on, in knifey-foreplay. And he was on a cocktail of unfamiliar class As. Could he have done it in a crazy drugged-up frenzy, and then forgotten about it? Or not forgotten about it ... One thing I do know: I’m hooked.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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