The Yards
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.

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. I do not make this pronoucnement because people die in The Yards, or suffer from terrible diseases, though both of these things happen. Rather, the film 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. Even when the movie starts, the characters Gray has written 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, and movies as depressing as this one can sometimes foolhardily embrace their own relentlessness. In fact, I thought Gray's first film, the identically premised Little Odessa, got irritatingly lost in its own anhedonia. The Yards, however, is a very good film, and though obviously flawed, it does generate one form of elation: the feeling of seeing a young director stick to the guns of his tricky, ambitious material, and find 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, and the first of the movie's many notes of melancholy eloquence comes when Leo walks through the door, and for a beat or two, no one notices. Val is a noble sufferer, only half-na´ve, like Joe Pesci's mother in GoodFellas as directed by Douglas Sirk. Also, like 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.

Hers is not, however, the only important acquaintance the prodigal son remakes 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 because of how his decisions affected her sister, Val. He initiates a stilted, perhaps flirtatious but totally unenergetic exchange with Erica (a brunette Charlize Theron), Kitty's daughter, 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 this menagerie of wounded animals—though, as an exception that proves the rule, Willie is a hyperactive, smooth-talking shark—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.

While we're on the subject, the title of The Yards is partially appropriate because two shocking, unpremeditated acts of violence that destroy Leo's nascent attempt to reestablish himself—acts in which, I should add, Leo plays a mostly innocent role. The title is also fitting, though, because watching the pileup of characters that constitute Leo's extended family resembles the spectacle of these sleeping, derelict cars, of which someone will presumably be reactivated and others consigned to waste away in the grim air. 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, despite the vastness of their cast and the proliferation of plot lines, to have packed 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 ambitions of The Yards is to present not just the characters and their dilemmas but a neighborhood, a time period, and an entire historical moment in painstaking detail. The boundaries of this narrative, which I won't even attempt 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 mood, however mournful, is so strenously preserved and precisely detailed. Gray tinkered with this film for over a year beyond its approved schedule and went way over budget. Part of the reason can be divined from anecdotes like that which has Gray's crew water-coloring every surface of the sets (walls, lampshades, furniture) so the reflected light would be pearlier, more subdued. He may be only slightly less mad than the obsessive-compulsives who bend Nick Park's runaway chickens millimeter by millimeter, but this self-styled auteur's attention to detail pays off beautifully, as eccentricities. The Yards feels like one of the painfully intimate, public-private elegies we haven't really seen since the 1970s, and not merely because of the iconic presences of Burstyn, Caan, and Dunaway, all of them welcome sights, all turning in haunting, restrained performances. Phoenix, facing a higher degree of difficulty than he did in Gladiator, plays a more choleric version of the pathetic hoods John Cazale might have played, and Wahlberg, who feels like a 70s icon because of Boogie Nights, is well-cast as the taciturn but hardly unfeeling Leo.

And yet, the primary way in which The Yards evokes films like The Conversation and Five Easy Pieces is the way it constructs a sort of vertiginous abyss of sadness. Leo, who sees his sad family, tries to get his job, and is disappointed by his prospects, so he takes a risk, where his worst fears are realized, and he runs to protect himself, by which point he is isolated from everyone he cares about. He can't even look to the justice system for help, because besides the epidemic corruption among political networks, he knows that his past offenses make him a threat in the public eye. There isn't anyone alive, stranger or not, 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 disaster. Theron plays her with a bit too much Bambi-eyed obviousness, and the arc of her character is the most hackneyed and unnecessary development in a film that has plenty else going on. It is dispiriting to see a film so choked with real emotion cheat so overtly to generate a false climax.

Beyond that creaky subplot, if the emotional sincerity of the rest of The Yards can't get you on board, nor can compelling character work from a highly qualified cast, I don't want to close without praising the movie for being so big. 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—and the overlaying of themes and feelings is generous. Gray's vision can be a little far-sighted, for in his commitment to his grand scheme, he can occasionally let the scene or shot at hand run on too long, or silence Howard Shore's otherwise powerful score before it distracts from the affect of the images themselves. Still, how many new movies have problems like this—too much ambition, too much awe before the Me Decade masterpieces, and occasional overdoses of emotion? Count how many times I've unwittingly used the word "feel" in this review to understand how much texture Gray's film has as both a visual and emotional experience. And by all means, head to the theater and feel this movie for youself. B

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

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