Yards, The (2000) ***1/2
Directed by James Gray. Written by Gray and Matt Reeves. Photography, Harris Savides. Editing, Jeff Ford. Production design, Kevin Thompson. Music, Howard Shore. Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Leo Handler), Charlize Theron (Erica Soltz), Joaquin Phoenix (Willie Gutierrez), James Caan (Frank Olchin), Ellen Burstyn (Val Handler), Faye Dunaway (Kitty Olchin). A Miramax release. 115 minutes. R (violence, language). At the Art.
The Yards is first-rate but quite sparsely distributed. Catch it if you can. I saw this movie at the Cannes Film Festival, and again a few days ago. It was excellent then, it is even better now. At Cannes it had some great write-ups yet did not win a prize. I suspect because it was taken for a genre movie and its originality escaped the jury.
Its title refers to the train-subway yards in the New York borough of Queens, where equipment is maintained and repaired. It is a hugely lucrative business in which contracts with the local government are obtained by hook and mostly crook by savagely competing corporations. Venality and corruption reign among city officials, politicians, even the police. Gangster methods are common. And there is no honor among thieves.
Leo had taken the fall for a car theft by his buddies. Released from prison he wants to go straight, especially as Val, his mother, has a serious heart ailment. Her sister Kitty is the wife of Frank -- the boss of the Electric Rail Corporation--- and the mother of Erica from a previous marriage. At his welcome party (bull's eye in atmosphere), Leo reconnects with best pal Willie. He works for Frank and is dating Erica.
Leo asks "uncle" Frank for a straight job as a mechanic, but finds out that it would involve long schooling and apprenticeship. Willie takes his friend in hand, shows him the ways and means of the underworld (colorful yet realistic), then leads him with others to a yard, for sabotage. But what develops is a double crime. The yard master who has defected from Frank's firm to a rival one, is knifed dead by Willie. And a vile, nasty cop, hit on the head by lookout man Leo, goes into a coma.
This is the sad start of Leo's new tribulations which will be complicated and involve complex relationships by the main characters and the extended family.
The events and moods of the story are perfectly captured by the protagonists, the rest of the cast, the gloomy photography, sets and music, and by a text that has no preaching, no speechmaking, no quotable lines and no artificial local color.
In 1994, director-writer James Gray, then about 24, gave us his excellent first feature Little Odessa, which was set in Brighton Beach and its Russian Mafia. He made The Yards, his second feature, at age 29 or 30. Gray is no run-of-the-mill "new director." He is an intellectual, well educated in arts, film history and humanities. His own father was implicated in shady deals not unlike those of the movie's. His anti-capitalist political opinions follow those of Louis Althusser about people being trapped in "the system." This is soberly illustrated in The Yards.
Consciously or not, the movie has points in common with the great films about gangsters, corruption and payola at all levels (cf. On The Waterfront)-- but it is no copycat work. Themes from familiar movies such as going straight, the family, the fall guy, etc--even set pieces such as a would-be-assassin sneaking into a hospital to terminate a dangerous witness --are present yet convincingly true.
James Caan has called this work "a modern opera," but I think it is not. The Godfather pictures were (with a real opera within one of the films) but The Yards is a very modern Greek tragedy. It is made powerfully effective by its absence of bravura, by the unhappiness of all the characters, and by its interlocking cast's ensemble playing. The younger actors are a perfect foil to old-timers Burstyn and Dunaway. And Caan gives a quiet, subtle, effectively minimalist performance that sends him back up to the top of great players.