“Your mother needs you now”
After watching the latest entry from director James Gray, We Own the Night, my interest in seeing his previous work waned immensely. Not that I hated the film, it just wasn’t quite to the quality that I had heard his earlier stuff was. Maybe some of that had to do with Mark Wahlberg as a clean cop, for some reason I can’t believe him in roles like that, and it is a shame. However, after viewing The Yards, my opinion has completely turned around. I now see why Gray would have cast Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in his newest; he wanted to try and strike gold twice, because honestly, The Yards is a fantastic film in all facets. Possibly my favorite performance from Marky Mark by far, (although I did love him in I Heart Huckabees, but I digress), this role was made for him. Phoenix is put in a similar role as he was in Night—it’s weird making these backwards comparisons as I saw the new before the old, but what can you do—and James Caan is absolutely spectacular in a turn that has more levels to it than anything I have ever seen him do. The story is well crafted and well directed throughout, enhancing the actors’ clinic going on. There is truly little to fault.
At its core, the movie is mainly a character study of an extended family at home and on the job. As the title alludes to, the action sparks from the train yards of Queens and the corruption and greed occurring there and in the business dealings of the rival rail lines. Our entry point to the tale, though, comes from young Leo Handler (Wahlberg) arriving home from a stint in jail where he took the fall for his friends. Of course, while he was inside, all those he covered for seem to have made a good life for themselves, working with his aunt’s new husband and seemingly cleaned up their street thug images. Leo believes that what he did was right and that those around him will do what they can to keep him out of trouble and hopefully make a life of his own and support his ailing mother, a stellar Ellen Burstyn as always. This trust is a bit blindly taken as he soon finds what it is his old friends do for his uncle. Rather than protect him, they drag him right back into the life of crime he is desperately trying to stay clear of.
Through all the corruption going on, we soon find all our principals caught in a web of lies as they do what they can to keep the business afloat. Sometimes your best friend is the best fall guy especially when he is the easy choice to go down for it. This is where trust shows how it can backfire quickly on a whim. I believe that aspect is the main driving force here—trust in your parents, trust in your children, trust in your friends, your boyfriend, and above all else, yourself. Leo finds himself growing up very fast in the short time he is out of jail. He may not be so good with words as his friend Willie (Phoenix), however, he takes the advice of reading those around him, to see what they want in order to give it to them for his means, to heart. While on the lam as an unknowing scapegoat, Leo finally sees who his true family is and what he would like his life to be.
The entire plot hinges on the success of Wahlberg and Phoenix’s relationship with each other as Leo and Willie. These two guys have been through a lot together in their youth and find they are more brothers than anything else. Willie is even dating Leo’s cousin and working for his father after all; they have all adopted him into the family, almost as a replacement for the kid that helped keep him out of jail. The two have absolute trust in each other, yet Willie finds himself flying a little too close to the sun. When push comes to shove, only one of them will find they are willing to face the consequences for the other. The two actors are at the top of their game and captivated me every second of the proceedings. Never quite knowing how it would all turn out, both channeled the streets and showed what it is like to face the decision of sacrifice, whether that be throwing oneself on the sword or feeding the other to the wolves.
Firing on all cylinders, The Yards doesn’t rely solely on these two lead actors. The supporting cast is immense and they all perfectly execute what is needed from them. As previously mentioned, Caan is a powerhouse of emotions and restraint in a role that appears to be the tough guy patriarch he is so often portraying, but also containing some semblance of humanity at its core. Charlize Theron shows some of the skill that would eventually lead to an Oscar as the naïve cousin caught in a family of liars and cheaters, never knowing who she can really turn to for help, and Faye Dunaway brings a nice performance, in a small role, culminating into a heart-wrenching final moment with Wahlberg at the ending funeral, so perfect in its simplicity and a great culmination of everything that has gone on. Also, I love seeing the “friend connection” of Hollywood at work. Tony Musante has a small role much like the one in Gray’s Night and seeing Domenick Lombardozzi begs the question of whether he landed a cameo in “Entourage” due to his HBO connection on “The Wire” or because of starting a friendship with Wahlberg, the comedy’s producer, on this film.
I must conclude with some props to the director as well. Whether the credit goes to him or not for the cinematography, it is spectacular. I love the moments of brown outs and just the use of darkness in general, (a scene between Leo and his uncle alternating between light and shadow comes to mind). The fight scene between Leo and Willie is shot nicely, beginning in close-up and eventually panning out in two cuts to a wide view, and a later frame of Phoenix in his car, face cropped in shadow, with a single tear falling from his eye, is just plain beautiful. Either way, Gray deserves all the credit for getting the pieces put together and allowing his ensemble cast to hit it out of the park. An earlier film for some of them—at least before the huge stardom they appear to have now—the youngsters definitely hold their own in scenes with some of cinema’s greats.
The Yards 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Mark Wahlberg in Miramax’s The Yards – 2000
 Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix in Miramax’s The Yards – 2000