The Yards
First screened and reviewed in November 2000
Director: James Gray. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, James Caan, Charlize Theron, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Andrew Davoli, Steve Lawrence, Robert Montano. Screenplay: James Gray and Matt Reeves.

Twitter Capsule: So promising, flaws and limits barely matter. Rich idiom, fine acting, pearlescent lensing do. Big step up from Odessa.

VOR:   Maybe not one for the canon, but care taken with image, mood, mise-en-scène stands out impressively from current landscape.

Photo © 2000 Miramax Films
James Gray's The Yards—and more than with most films, The Yards truly belongs to its director—is the saddest film I have seen all year, and not because people die in it or suffer from terrible diseases, though both of these things happen. Rather, The Yards hit me with an emotional wallop because nearly every scene, every moment, features a character being disappointed or compromised, or made to know or see something he or she never wanted to imagine. Already when the movie starts, Gray's characters are not a happy bunch, so the decline in their emotional fortunes through the narrative sinks them to a decidedly low plane. I suppose I'm not doing a good job of selling The Yards, because people avoid depressing movies, though The Yards avoids the pitfall of so many other, equally dispiriting movies that get bogged down in flaunting their own relentlessness. I, for instance, thought Gray's first film, the identically premised Little Odessa, got irritatingly submerged in its own anhedonia. The Yards feels not just better but more earnest than its predecessor, its style and its drama possessed of greater integrity. As grim and obviously flawed as the movie is, it generates one form of elation, which springs from watching a young director stick to the guns of some tricky, ambitious material and enlist the right people to tell his story.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Leo, a twentysomething who just completed a prison sentence he earned for stealing cars. The first sequence of The Yards comprises the teeming, amber-lit homecoming party that Leo's mother Val (Ellen Burstyn) throws on her son's behalf; the first note of melancholy eloquence comes when Leo walks through the door, and for just a beat, no one notices. Val is a noble sufferer, only half-naëve about the world she's stuck in, and similar to Vanessa Redgrave in Little Odessa, she's deteriorating from a terminal heart condition that has of course worsened during Leo's run-ins with the law.

Val's is not the only important acquaintance this prodigal son re-makes upon returning to this working-class apartment. He has a tense conversation with his aunt Kitty Olchin (Faye Dunaway), who barely veils her contempt for Leo's reckless past, especially given how his conduct has affected her sister, Val. He initiates a stilted, perhaps flirtatious, but totally unenergetic exchange with Kitty's daughter Erica (a brunette Charlize Theron), and he warmly embraces Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), Leo's old buddy and Erica's soon-to-be fiancé. The only important character missing from Within this menagerie of wounded animals, Willie stands out as a hyperactive, smooth-talking shark, his ink-black hair and carmine-colored shirt standing out within the ochre palette of these opening scenes, as does his pushier, more effusive demeanor. Meanwhile, the only important character missing from this long narrative movement is Frank (James Caan), Kitty's husband and Erica's stepfather, who runs a business that seeks and fulfills maintenance and construction contracts for the New York City public transportation system. The "yards" of the title are the subway yards where cars wait to be repaired or reactivated on the city rails. That title is partially appropriate because two shocking, unpremeditated acts of violence transpire in that setting, each helping to destroy Leo's nascent attempt to reestablish himself despite his lack of direct culpability in either incident. The Yards is also fitting as a moniker for this film, though, because watching the sad pileup of characters who constitute Leo's extended family feels an awful lot like beholding the spectacle of Frank's sleeping, derelict train cars, some of them bound to get recuperated into service, others consigned to waste away forever in the dim, stale air.

For all the vastness of the cast and the proliferation of plot lines, Gray and co-writer Matt Reeves—who scripted and helmed his own very sad, very underrated, but very different movie, 1996's The Pallbearer—cannot be accused of packing too much into their screenplay. Or, at least, there is less surplus in the script than my attempt to thumbnail it might imply. One of the central, toughest goals of The Yards is to present not just particular characters and their dilemmas but a canvas of an entire neighborhood, time period, and historical moment in painstaking detail. The furthest reaches of this narrative, which I won't try to exhaust here, include civic corruption, small-scale terrorism, racism among immigrant cultures, secret love, and generational conflict.

These threads all feel organically absorbed into a cohesive work because the mournful but intricate mood of The Yards is so precisely detailed and scrupulously preserved. If we're to believe the trade press, Gray tinkered with this film for over a year beyond its approved schedule and went way over budget. Anecdotes have emerged about Gray, for example, recruiting his crew to watercolor every surface of the sets (walls, lampshades, furniture) so the reflected light in these scenes would be pearlier, more subdued. He may be only slightly less mad than those obsessive-compulsives who bend and nudge Nick Park's runaway chickens millimeter by millimeter from shot to shot, though we rarely celebrate such intensive investment in our dramatic storytellers as we do in our animators. More to the point, this self-styled auteur's attention to detail pays off beautifully, enriching his storytelling as much more than a stylistic eccentricity. The Yards feels like one of the painfully intimate elegies for stymied lives and civic malaise we saw so much of in the 1970s but rarely since then. The iconic presences of Burstyn, Caan, and Dunaway are not the only sources for this impression, though all of them are very welcome sights, turning in haunting but restrained performances. Among the newer faces, Phoenix faces a higher degree of difficulty than he did with his role in Gladiator, playing a more choleric version of the inarticulate, semi-pathetic hoods John Cazale used to render, and Wahlberg, who feels like a 70s icon because of Boogie Nights, is well-cast as the taciturn but hardly unfeeling Leo.

The primary way in which The Yards evokes films like The King of Marvin Gardens or Five Easy Pieces concerns its vertiginous abyss of sadness, as potent in widescreen exteriors as it is in bedrooms and private hallways. Leo, reunited with his sad family but steadily disappointed in his attempts to really reboot his life, takes a plausible risk to help himself get ahead; when his worst fears are realized, he struggles to protect himself and the people he cares about, but these efforts only isolate him from that very circle. He can't look to the justice system for help, because even leaving aside the epidemic corruption among political networks (which the film powerfully exhibits), Leo knows that his past offenses make him a threat in the public eye. There isn't anyone alive, stranger, friend, or relative, who can look at Leo without being worried, alarmed, or afraid. Erica is the closest thing to an exception but she is also The Yards' closest thing to a blatant dramatic weakness. Theron plays her with a bit too much Bambi-eyed sympathy, an obvious and sentimental approach to the character that's out of sync with the film's tone. The arc of her character is also the most hackneyed and unnecessary development in a film that has plenty else going on. It is dispiriting to observe a film so choked with real emotion cheat so overtly in order to generate a "shocking" but transparently rigged climax.

Beyond that creaky subplot, the gutsy emotional candor of the rest of The Yards really distinguishes the film, as does the compelling character work from a highly qualified cast. Furthermore, I don't want to close without praising the movie for being so big in other respects. The aspect ratio of this widescreen gem, photographed by Harris Savides, feels like it's 3:1—the screen looks oblong and somberly majestic, like an old subway car. At the level of the script, the overlaying of themes and feelings not only makes for ample drama but embraces human paradox. Gray's vision can be a little far-sighted: in his commitment to an admirably grand scheme, he occasionally lets a scene or shot run on too long. He is prone to silencing Howard Shore's powerful score lest it distract from the power in Savides' images, of which Gray seems supremely protective. Still, how many new movies have problems like this—too much ambition, too much awestruck indebtedness to Me Decade masterpieces, and too many overdoses of emotion? Count how many times I've unwittingly used the word "feel" in this review, implying how much texture Gray's film has as both a visual and emotional experience. By all means, head to the theater and feel this movie for youself. Grade: B

National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Phoenix; also cited for Gladiator and Quills)

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