Movie Review By Casey McCabe
The new film "The Yards" is set in the realm of the New York subway system. Yet strangely enough, the film seems underpopulated. The Yards in question are stark, lonesome places, seen almost exclusively at night in the outer boroughs. They would appear abandoned altogether if it weren't for the few corrupt men who work behind the scenes, making a living peddling the parts that keep the unseen masses moving. And these men – even the young ones -- are pretty much rusty relics themselves. Broom the occasional glimpse of a Lexus or a World Trade Center and they inhabit the same salty New York underbelly that films have romanticized for 50 or 60 years.
But rail yards aren't places we like to visit. Not surprisingly, few filmmakers choose to take us there. Or more to the point, leave us there. But that is what writer/director James Gray does in The Yards. Only the impressive cast he's amassed lures us into taking the ride: Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn and James Caan all grace the screen, and not one of them in a throwaway role.
Basically, it's Wahlberg's story. His Leo Handler has just gotten out of jail, having taken the fall in some unarticulated car theft caper. He returns home to deeply blue collar Queens, to his gravely ill and painfully devoted mother, played by Burstyn, his almost equally devoted friend Willie, played by Phoenix – and yes, it is impossible to look at Joaquin Phoenix and not know something tragic is just around the corner — and to Willie's girlfriend Erica, who is also Leo's cousin, with whom he shares a dangerous attraction because she looks exactly like Charlize Theron. While Leo was away, his aunt, played by Dunaway, has married a successful transit industrialist, played by Caan. Everyone is rooting for genuinely sweet Leo to make a new life, but the sense of impending doom starts with the opening scene and never relents. Not even accidental humor is allowed to penetrate this film. The Yards is hermetically sealed in grim.
Ignoring for a moment the stellar cast, The Yards looks, feels and acts like a small film. And I mean that in a good way. It aims for complexity and isn't afraid of competing sympathies. Even the most corrupt are given their share of nobility. But ultimately everyone in The Yards loses. And a last-second bit of old-fashioned grandstanding designed to save Leo's life and honor, and make us feel something good has come out of all this, seems rather desperate. Unintentionally, perhaps, catching the spirit of the movie.
The Yards is gritty. But it left me feeling neither earthy, nor wizened. Just thankful to be free of these sad people's ordeal.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/1/00
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