The Yards are the train yards of the New York City Transit authority where subway cars are maintained and repaired, often by private contractors who competitively bid for the work. It’s a system ripe with possibilities for graft and James Gray’s film skillfully shows the rivalries, the deal-making, the payoffs, the sabotage, and the resulting violence, all as a context for the story of Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), whose uncle, Frank Olchin (James Caan) is a contractor. (Gray alludes to a real graft scandal in New York that brought down a borough president.)
Leo took a fall for some friends and returns from time in the penitentiary, anxious to stay out of trouble and to get an honest job. His ailing mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn), has proudly refused handouts from Olchin. When Leo asks Olchin for a job, Olchin tells him to do an apprenticeship and offers financial assistance, but Leo refuses and then makes the mistake that will get him caught up in the shady operations in the yards, leading into a vortex of violence and unexpected betrayals.
Leo’s struggle for redemption is at the center of the well-told story, as the depths of corruption are plumbed. Corruption breeds corruption, violence breeds violence – it’s a very black view, indeed, operatic in its intensity. And, as in some very good operas, there are plot leaps and holes that detract from, but do not destroy the effectiveness of the whole. (Inexplicably, there are no police in evidence at Val’s house when surely it would be under watch. The conclusion – not to be disclosed here -is somewhat rushed, somewhat pat, and it stretches credulity.) Of course, operas transcend problematic plots with thrilling music.
Gray draws first-rate performances from a first-rate cast, playing against the baroque story and intense emotion with restraint in the acting. Wahlberg (Three Kings, Boogie Nights), as an ex-con, logically, is wary and hides his feelings; he’s all eyes, witness to the tragedy unfolding around him. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) plays Willie Gutierrez, the friend who leads him astray, and Charlize Theron (Reindeer Games, The Cider House Rules) is Erica, Willie’s fiancee and Leo’s cousin. Both register well in depicting the emotional burden of the conflicts within the family. Theron catches the pain in Erica’s growing realization of Willie’s culpability. Caan is a convincingly ruthless entrepreneur and Faye Dunaway, as his wife, gives one of her best performances in years in a small supporting role. Gray’s push for restraint helps Dunaway peel away her tendency toward scenery chewing and what remains is powerfully intense. Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) gives yet another of her flawless performances, capturing and projecting a mother’s concern, guilt, and unconditional love for her son.
The production uses saturated, often monotonic color schemes, dark backgrounds, and sharp dark and light contrasts to create a claustrophobic, melodramatic atmosphere. From the opening shot of pinpoint lights in a subway tunnel, to a silhouette against hospital draperies, to a shaft of light against the shadowy darkness of an abandoned warehouse, the director’s eye is fresh and the cinematography of Harris Savides realizes Gray’s vision.The score/music choices demonstrate that soft and quiet can accomplish and enhance suspense and tension as well or better than the overamplified noise so common in recent films.
Gray is obviously a director of imagination and skill. (This is his second outing; the first was Little Odessa.) His story here (he co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Reeves) is complex, offering fine ironies in the twists and turns of the plot and rounded characterizations enhanced by the controlled performances of his leads. It will be interesting to watch Gray’s future films for a maturation beyond melodrama. For now, The Yards makes for gripping entertainment.