The Yards Movie Review
Stylistically, "The Yards" is a vivid throwback to gritty urban dramas of the 1970s -- a character-driven morality tale, dank and moody, and photographed in dusky, cloudy, rusty hues.
Dramatically, however, its understated manner -- full of subtle unspoken expression and conflicted ethics and loyalties -- is never quite as gripping as was clearly intended.
A behind-the-scenes story of perilous corruption amongst New York City subway contractors, the picture stars the increasingly impressive Mark Wahlberg as Leo, a frayed recent parolee trying to put his life back together after taking the fall for an unnamed crime committed by a group of friends.
Leo returns to the home of his sickly, concerned mother (Ellen Burstyn) and against his better judgement takes a job under his highly connected and compromised uncle (James Caan), who runs a rail yard where subway cars are repaired and maintained. The job description is vague, but he'll be working with his longtime friend Willie (a slightly ominous Joaquin Phoenix), who is clearly making good money and enjoying a certain amount of power.
But the first night on the job Leo learns he's already made a wrong turn. Told to stand guard while Willie and a band of thugs wreak sabotage in the yards of a competitor, Leo is confronted by a cop and has to beat him unconscious to avoid arrest. Meanwhile, Willie has murdered the night watchman, and guess who's going to get framed?
Wahlberg's quiet-tough persona is just the right temperature for portraying the disharmony of Leo's life as he tries to stay loyal to his family and especially to his dearest cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), a troubled girl who became Willie's fiancée while Leo was in stir.
Theron and Phoenix -- also frequently under-appreciated actors -- are just as resonant. She lends a pitiable layer of damaged depth to Erica and he plays Willie's crooked devotion with just the right mix of smarm and delinquent fidelity. Caan, Burstyn and Faye Dunaway, as Wahlberg's aunt and Caan's wife, all create the kind of veritable characters we've come to expect from them.
But even though the performances are very strong, they inspire little investment in the characters -- and this is, after all, a character drama. Few people will come to see it compelled by a rabid thirst for stories about subway sub-contractors.
Writer-director James Gray forges a hard-boiled atmosphere of danger and nepotism as Leo hides out, contemplating his allegiances and beginning to see whistle blowing as his only option -- and his only chance to do right by his mother. Yet "The Yards" never envelops the audience in the deep tenor and rich realism of its sullied world. When the credits roll, it's a picture that motivates little more than a shrug.