(director/writer: James Gray; screenwriter: Matt Reeves; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: Jeffrey Ford; music: Howard Shore; cast: Mark Wahlberg (Leo Handler), Joaquin Phoenix (Willie Guitierrez), Charlize Theron (Erica Stoltz), James Caan (Frank Olchin), Ellen Burstyn (Val Handler), Faye Dunaway (Kitty Olchin), Victor Argo (Paul Lazarides), Tomas Milian (Manuel Sequiera), Steve Lawrence (Arthur Mydanick), Tony Musante (Seymour Korman); Runtime: 108; Miramax; 2000)

“A well-presented but grim drama that unravels about halfway through…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-presented but grim drama that unravels about halfway through and then falls completely apart in its schmaltzy forced surprise ending after falsely sucking us into believing this is going to be a strong anti-Hollywood noir film. This second feature by director James Gray is almost as potent as his first film Little Odessa, except it can’t resolve the story without losing its grip on the tension it created. This comes after taking the film into the snake-pits of big city political corruption.

Again Gray frames the story around a very gritty and grimy NYC outer boroughs background. He tells the story of a Queens small-time street smart thief named Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg). The quiet, inarticulate young man has just been paroled and wants to go straight. He dutifully returns to live with his long-suffering widowed mother Val (Burstyn).

Val’s sister Kitty (Dunaway) is married to the successful head of a firm whose company repairs New York City subway cars, Frank Olchin (Caan). Uncle Frank, showing that he can be benevolent to family members, tries to get Leo into a machinist school where he can learn a trade and will have an entry-level permanent job in the subway system waiting for him in about two years. But Leo wants an immediate job so he can help his mother out. So he ends up in the crooked schemes Frank is involved with to get his city contracts. Leo finds work under the brash, upward mobile Willie Guitierrez (Joaquin Phoenix). Willie is the one who greases the politico’s palms and does whatever dirty work it is required for Frank’s firm to get the lucrative contracts. It is implied that if Frank does not bribe the city officials, he would be out of business.

Willie happens to be going out with Leo’s cousin and Frank’s stepdaughter, the sexy Erica (Charlize Theron). Frank is Kitty’s second husband. Willie is best friends with Leo. In fact, Leo was involved with Willie and his auto thief crew when he stole the car he did the time for. Since he never snitched, Willie therefore wants to make it up to Leo and get him into some of the big money he’s making. What he doesn’t know is that as youngsters, Leo had a history with Erica that was broken up by her mother.

“The Yards” aspires to be a sweeping film about corruption. It tells how city politicians become filthy rich by accepting bribes from corrupt business contractors, and how the minority contractors are also awaiting their chance to get into the corrupt action. Frank has become rich from a bribery and kickback scheme that includes playing ball with several local politicians who give out the subway contracts and by contributing to the election campaigns of the Queens borough president (Steve Lawrence) who oversees the whole contract operation.

The film is stylishly photographed in dark red and brown colors and the family get-togethers have everyone speaking in hushed somber tones, giving it the look of a Godfather film. The playing of Holst’s Saturn in the background also helps set its tense mood

The event that eventually acts to bring Frank’s business empire down, is when things do not go smoothly in the Sunnyside railroad yards. Willie takes Leo along to show him the ropes of their operation; their aim is to sabotage some railroad cars a minority group got the contract for. But things go wrong when the yardmaster tells him the minority group outbribed his group, and the yardmaster’s bosses made a deal to have the police patrolling the yards. Willie panics and fatally stabs the yardmaster who tried to prevent the sabotage, while Leo is nabbed by the policeman patrolling the yards. But Leo gets away when he knocks the cop unconscious, nearly killing him. When the cop recovers and identifies Leo through his mug shots, Leo gets accused of the murder and goes on the run.

It uses the same formula as those old-fashioned crime films, about a good-hearted ex-convict determined to go straight but finds himself led astray by friends and gets on a path from which there is no return. All that’s missing is seeing Bogie or Cagney or Pat O’Brien onscreen. That the film works despite these clichés, is a credit to its stellar cast and the muted way they play their parts. Mark Wahlberg is a character study of how temptation and not having a grip on one’s self could lead to making bad decisions, as he gives a heartfelt and subdued performance; Joaquin Phoenix is a time-bomb ready to explode from all his erotic needs and interests in gaining power and money and prestige, as he plays someone who is morally conflicted about being a betrayer; while, James Caan is not exactly an evil man as much as he’s capable of doing evil deeds because he wants to live the good life above all else. Caan brings his snake-like charms to a role that shows him to believe he’s on top of every situation, when all the signs indicate that this is not so. The film was good enough to be selected to play in both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.

The Yards Poster

REVIEWED ON 2/28/2002 GRADE: C +    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/