Published Feb 01, 2001In "The Yards," Mark Wahlberg plays Leo, a laconic, but sensitive guy, fresh out of prison, having served his time for an auto-theft charge (he sacrificed himself and refused to rat on his friends). At his "welcome home" party, he informs his parole officer, "I don't wanna cause no more problems. I just wanna become a puhductive person again." You'd be correct in anticipating that Leo will soon find himself inexorably drawn back into criminal activity, but "The Yards" almost immediately transcends this standard plot setup and delves deeply into issues of ethics and loyalty and personal integrity. The dark moods of this film eschew indulgences in stylised violence or copious pop culture references. As a result, director James Gray manages to turn the contemporary crime film on its ear. He makes us genuinely care about the fates of his characters.
The "crime family" in "The Yards" doesn't exist in a rarefied atmosphere it's very much a part of the everyday working world. They're in the commuter rail business, building and servicing most of the subway trains in New York City, and they just happen to receive their lucrative contracts through some well-placed bribes to municipal officials, and by sabotaging the work of their competitors. James Caan plays Frank Olchin, the putative "boss" (he owns the company and gives the orders) but there's nothing regal about him. He's got the wood-panelled office where he holds his unofficial meetings, but when his extended family has a sit-down dinner, it's Chinese take-out with a two-litre jug of Coke sitting in the middle of the table. In Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), he's got his volatile taskmaster to take care of the less savoury aspects of the business, but you get the sense that family loyalties haven't ever been tested to the point where they've proven themselves to be as solid or reliable as the Corleones.
The relationships in Leo's life all seem poisoned before he even renews them. He wants to help out his trusting mother (Ellen Burstyn), but his work for Frank and Willie only ends up bringing violence to her doorstep. There's also a guarded sexual attraction (and a steamy past) shared between Leo and Willie's girlfriend, Erica (Charlize Theron) and this relationship is wrong in more than one way: Leo and Erica are cousins. The script, by Gray and the underrated writer Matt Reeves ("The Pallbearer") doesn't shy away from piling up the moral complications, and the choices made by each character are indeed weighty, as they sort out their allegiances and decide which friend or family member they have to betray. "The Yards" isn't about how to be a moral person in an immoral world; it's about the impossibility of moral absolutes in a complicated world.
The film's images are as dense and penetrating as its thematic content. This is a lush, gloomy vision of New York that makes the streets and factories look haunted, even in broad daylight. One of the visual tropes of the film is the flickering of lights switching a scene from light to dark and back again, as if to comment that any moment has the potential to switch from good to bad in a split second, with a hasty or ill-timed decision. Leo, the alleged "hero" of the story, makes plenty of bad decisions, and to James Gray's credit, he doesn't let his protagonist off the hook easily. There may be no moral absolutes in "The Yards," but in the final image, the camera lingers long on Leo's guilt-ridden face, holding him accountable for his actions, despite everything.