A struggle to go home again
Tight action, both moral and physical, brings emotional tension to The Yards, the story of a man's attempt to bury parts of his past in the face of a dangerous present.
By PHILIP BOOTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000
A sense of Greek tragedy is at work in The Yards, the tale of a prodigal son who returns to his family's environs, finds himself sucked into a vortex of crime and corruption and demonstrates surprising moral mettle. James Gray, director of the underappreciated Little Odessa (1994), for his quietly seductive second feature also makes references to the Sidney Lumet school of little-man-against-the-system drama, as well as to The Godfatherand On the Waterfront.
[Photo: Miramax Films]
Frank (James Caan, left) and Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) have plans for a former prisoners employment, but one of the offers could be deadly to his resolutions.
The protagonist in this story, written by New York-born Gray (son of a subway contractor) and Long Islander Matt Reeves, is Leo (Mark Wahlberg), a blue-collar kid just returning to the New York borough of Queens after a 16-month stint in prison for auto theft. He's morose and lost in his thoughts on the subway ride home. The burnished gold-and-brown tints of the cinematography add to the sense of displaced time. This could be the '90s, or it might be the '70s.
A party celebrating Leo's release is the first of several sequences featuring a carefully matched mix of finely drawn performances: The ex-con's sickly mom (Ellen Burstyn), relieved by her son's return, holds tightly -- and rather pitifully -- to prospects of a brighter future.
His old pal Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), one of several buddies who apparently benefited from Leo's gutsy silence when questioned by authorities, is eager to give his trusty friend a connection with Frank (James Caan), honcho of a subway contracting company. And the sparks between Leo and his sexy cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), lately Willie's girlfriend, seem to be more than platonic.
Frank, who is married to Leo's upwardly mobile aunt (Faye Dunaway), suggests that his nephew train to be a machinist first, and then return for a sure-thing job with the Electric Rail Corporation.
But there's bigger money to be made partnering with Willie, the unofficial clean-up man for the company, a smooth talker specializing in sabotage of competitors and payoffs to the government officials with power to assign city contracts.
It's only a matter of time before the well-intentioned Leo gets soiled by the dirty business. A nasty encounter in the Sunnyside Yards results in damaged subway cars and a murder, and a badly battered cop is likely to finger Leo as the chief suspect.
Wahlberg, probably more downbeat than the role calls for, nevertheless shines on several occasions, including an emotionally intense segment in a hospital, where he has been sent to carry out an execution. Leo seems torn apart by conflicting allegiances. Will he follow his conscience or give in to the pressures of his associates?
Leo thus becomes a rat in a cage, running away from the police and fearing retribution from his co-workers, including Frank, whose desperation and world-weariness are illuminated magnificently by Caan.
Another tragic death completes the cycle of misery, and Gray ends his film on a note of noble solemnity, with one character going the way of honor among thieves. It's a familiar, rather conventional resolution, and just about the only element that blunts the impact of an otherwise gripping drama.
- Grade: B
- Director: James Gray
- Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway
- Screenplay: James Gray, Matt Reeves
- Rating: R; violence, profanity, partial nudity
- Running time: 115 minutes
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