The Yards



US 2000
dir James Gray
scr Gray, Matt Reeves
cin Harris Savides
stars Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan
116 minutes

The Yards is a old-fashioned piece of work – professionally crafted and reasonably engaging, but nothing new. There plot follows a young ex-con from a shady, corrupt family trying to go straight, but Gray and Reeves’s script is really more about exploring characters and their relationships than the mechanics of what they actually do.

Wahlberg brings his usual doughy sincerity to bear as Leo Handler, just out of prison and keen to avoid another spell inside. Following the urgings of his flashy best friend Willy (Phoenix), he takes what appears to be a legit job with his Uncle Frank (Caan), who runs a business manufacturing and repairing subway cars (in the “yards” of the title), only to find he’s stumbled into a web of corruption and violence with Phoenix at the centre.

Matters are complicated by the fact that Phoenix, a trusted lieutenant in Uncle Frank’s operation, is also engaged to the old man’s step-daughter (Theron), Leo’s cousin, with whom he has a special bond. On the run after one of Willy’s schemes goes messily awry, Leo realises his only chance of survival is to blow the lid off the whole crooked operation, even though it means shattering both his own code of honour, and also the ties bonding his own family – his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn) and her sister, Frank’s wife (Faye Dunaway).

Now and then Gray veers towards the stylish turf staked out by Scorsese (Phoenix and Wahlberg’s slo-mo entrance into a nightclub directly echoes Mean Streets) and Coppola (a botched hospital hit nods towards The Godfather), his preferred mode is more muted and restrained. He creates a believably shadowy world in which just about everyone – cops, government officials, businessmen – is corrupted or compromised to some extent. The film explores the degrees of darkness, its glossy surface sheen serving to emphasise the grimy sordidness of what’s actually going on.

The trouble with The Yards is that it could easily have been made any time over the past 30, perhaps even 40 years. Gray’s painstaking style might just have passed muster in the early 70s, but American film has moved on since then, and while Caan, Dunaway and (especially) Burstyn ensure proceedings are never less than watchable, they also carry a lot ‘golden era’ baggage, associations with talented directors who make Gray look very small beer in comparison. And while the lengthy running time does pass relatively painlessly, in retrospect it’s all a little “so what”-ish, a film so concerned with being serious and mature and important it ends up weighing itself down like one of its own subway cars, long since rendered obsolete by quicker, cleaner, more economical new models.