Friday October 20, 2000
In "The Yards" writer-director James Gray follows Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), just released from prison, to the modest Queens apartment of his mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn), where a festive homecoming gathering awaits him. Gray, who wrote his script with Matt Reeves, may as well be dropping in on a gathering of the house of Atreus, so much is the fate of Leo's family the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Leo is a diffident 24-year-old with a bad haircut and drab clothing who, having taken a 16-month fall for auto theft on behalf of friends, wants only to get on with his life and stay out of trouble. Yet only days later he has left a cop comatose and is wanted for a murder he did not commit. Before this happens, Gray introduces the quality inevitably essential to tragedy.
His widowed aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway) has recently remarried, to Frank Olchin (James Caan), whose business is repairing subway cars in the vast yards that give the film its name. Kitty, her daughter Erica (Charlize Theron) and adolescent son Bernard (Chad Aaron) are now living in Frank's vintage brick castle-like mansion with interiors that have acres of dark wood paneling, signifying a solidity and security largely illusory.
Before his release Leo received assurances that Frank would have a job waiting for him. At the party, his brash pal Willy (Joaquin Phoenix)--for whom Leo principally took the fall--insists that at Frank's factory he should work alongside him. Clearly, Willy, who has been going with Erica, is in the money, and Kitty has confided to Leo that his mother is fading from a heart condition.
At a formal meeting in Frank's office, Frank gently--too gently--tries to steer Leo away from working with Willy in supplies and suggests that he consider training for a machinist's position, not making clear until a family dinner that he, Frank, would help him financially through this period. Not that this delay would have mattered much: Both Val and Leo have too much pride to accept help from Frank, and Frank's pride, in turn, prevents him from spelling out just why he's trying to steer Leo away from Willy.
Frank is in fact fighting off being crushed by forces beyond his control--conglomerates, minority quotas among them. Clearly, in Frank's world greasing the palms of the police and politicians in landing lucrative contracts is a long-established, business-as-usual practice.
But the pressures upon Frank are increasing sharply, prompting him and his underlings to take increasingly dangerous and illegal risks. Leo has barely started working with Willy when, in a murky preemptive maneuver in the yards, Willy winds up knifing to death a rail switchman and Leo nearly beating to death the cop. Willy, backed by his pals, threatens to stick the switchman's murder on Leo, forcing him to try to kill the cop to make sure that he never comes out of his coma.
Having set up Leo's dilemma with great care, Gray then explores its private and public dimensions. Suspense swiftly develops as the wagons circle: Who will be left out to fend for himself? And at what level will those wagons circle? In a system of long-institutionalized corruption Frank and the smooth borough president (Steve Lawrence, yes, the Steve Lawrence, in a nifty acting turn) could well join forces. And it could well be that the positions of Leo and Willy might just wind up reversed.
There are some holes here to be sure: For example, you wonder why there's no police surveillance of Val's apartment, which Leo, wanted by the police, visits repeatedly and without temerity. But "The Yards" is so strong and secure in its remorseless movement that you buy into what's happening, its people so firmly gripped in the vise of fate and their own character flaws.
Frank and Willy echo each other in that they both have loving, decent instincts that are forever tainted by the criminal. Willy, a big lug with Elvis Presley looks, has the further liability of being a hothead who's none too smart but, as an ambitious Latino in Frank's white world, is craving an acceptance that Frank's key business rival (Tomas Milian) insists he will never receive.
As he did so effectively in his memorable first film, "Little Odessa," Gray creates an everyday world, blue-collar and somewhat ethnic in feeling, in which there is a continuum between respectability and corruption. The flow and balance between the two elements is in constant, often volatile flux.
In this, Gray recalls Sidney Lumet's New York films, but whereas Lumet has a crisp, crackling wit, Gray retains a somber, elegiac tone in keeping with his tragic vision, echoed in Harris Savides' masterly dark-hued camera work and in Howard Shore's stately score. (Production designer Kevin Thompson's crucial contribution to the film's authenticity is as accurate as it is subtle.)
Gray's splendid, self-effacing cast performs as an ensemble, but the film's rightly dominant presences are Caan and Dunaway, the linchpin couple who understand that it is they who must hold the family together no matter how or what. It's Dunaway's Kitty who leads a clasping of family hands that sustains and protects as surely as it crushes and destroys.
The Yards, 2000. R, for language, violence and a scene of sexuality. A Miramax Films presentation of a Paul Webster/Industry Entertainment production. Director James Gray. Producers Nick Wechsler, Paul Webster, Kerry Orrent. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon. Screenplay by Gray and Cinematographer Harris Savides. Editor Jeffrey Ford. Music Howard Shore. Costumes Michael Clancy. Production designer Kevin Thompson. Art director Judy Rhee. Set decorator Ford Wheeler. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Mark Wahlberg as Leo Handler. James Caan as Frank Olchin. Joaquin Phoenix as Willy Gutierrez. Charlize Theron as Erica Stoltz. Faye Dunaway as Kitty Olchin. Ellen Burstyn as Val Handler.