The Yards Movie Review

The Yards begins with a rebirth of sorts. A subway train emerges from a tunnel into daylight. It is carrying Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) out of the darkness and home, after his time in prison. He has taken the rap for an auto theft circle, one including close buddy Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), and is returning to a grateful homecoming. But The Yards is a dark crime drama, and Leo's future doesn't remain in the light for long in James Gray's impressive, classically styled mini-saga.

Gray, recently appearing with The Yards at the Boston Film Festival, based his tale of New York City subway vendor corruption on his own father's experiences. The filmmaker has given us a well-composed script, deftly flowing through intertwining relations of families, friends, enemies, and politicians. He sustains a hopelessly dim design throughout the film, even having the mind to steal wonderfully from a few Godfather scenes (he claims by accident), and lifting Gordon Willis' outstanding cinematography with his DP, Harris Savides (on purpose). Gray's direction gives us an overriding sense of doom that retains suspense far beyond that of a second-time filmmaker (his first being 1994's grim Little Odessa). But all that is nothing without Mark Wahlberg.

The movie world is finally becoming convinced that Wahlberg can tackle just about any role and carry an entire picture if need be. Initially, he had to sell himself to Gray, assuring him that having done jail time himself, he "gets it" and could make Leo his own.

Instead of playing the streetwise punk that Gray may have first envisioned, Wahlberg nails a more sympathetic Leo -- tough, proud, loyal, uneducated -- all with a pinpoint conservation of emotion and energy. He walks through most of The Yards in a daze, not knowing how to handle a larcenous offer but sliding into it anyway, slowly contemplating his moves after one particularly disastrous jam.

When Wahlberg finally stages a fistfight with another actor, it has an explosive feel, as if we've been tensing up for the entire movie right along with him, staying quiet and pensive, and finally letting it out. Wahlberg knew well enough to keep the tone way down, and Gray was smart enough to take advantage of it.

If Wahlberg is great casting, the company as a whole is inspired: James Caan as a crooked company boss (he finally gets to play the Don!), Ellen Burstyn as Leo's ailing mother, Charlize Theron as Leo's cousin, Faye Dunaway as Caan's well-to-do wife, the raw, talented Joaquin Phoenix as the buddy, and the piece de resistance, crooner Steve Lawrence as the Queens borough President. (The first time Lawrence appears on screen, Gray makes him look like a typical movie mobster, not only creating a surprise in casting, but making a telling statement between crime and politics.) This cadre performs like a team. They come together easily to work the flow of cross-conversation and ad lib, and they make the more structured scenes click like clockwork.

Moments of slick predictability aside, Gray uses that cast to create a classic tragedy, taking eternal themes from some of history's great storytelling. While that always carries with it a sense of timelessness and honor, Gray adds the kind of design and style that make The Yards his own, and casts Mark Wahlberg in an increasingly more impressive light.

The film's DVD release features a number of extras that fans will surely love, including a commentary track and a making-of documentary, but ultimately the extra material doesn't stand up well next to the film as a whole.

Wahlberg and Phoenix get outta the Yard.


Comments

The Yards Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: R, 2000

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