“The Yards” is an “On the Waterfront” wannabe, directed with a heavy portentousness that smothers the drama in a thick sauce of self-importance. A look at political corruption and personal betrayal that concentrates on a family trying to dominate business in New York City’s subway yards, James Gray’s sophomore feature develops a degree of dramatic tension but, like “Little Odessa” six years ago, entombs its characters so thoroughly in a prison of palpably predestined tragedy that one knows from the outset that the very worst that can happen most certainly will. Attractive cast and prospect of some good reviews look to spell OK business for this Miramax release.
For both his films to date, Gray has found offbeat, little-examined angles on Gotham criminal life, and populated them with first-rate casts. But an overwhelming sense of fatalism surrounds them both, and the problem is exacerbated this time out by the feeling that Gray is auditioning to direct “The Godfather, Part IV”; all the actors have obviously been instructed to murmur their lines with a deliberate gravity that almost becomes a parody of the style the Francis Coppola set so effectively in his gangster saga.
“The Yards” is filled with characters who don’t think very clearly or behave very well, even within the bounds of their own dubious set of values. Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is a young man just finished doing time for auto theft and is apparently determined to walk the straight-and-narrow. To this end, he applies for a position with his uncle Frank (James Caan), a heavily connected businessman whose company, Electric Rail Corp., makes and repairs New York City trains. But when Frank explains that the road to a secure union machinist’s job involves a two-year training program, Leo finds an easier way to put money in his pocket by joining the team of his boyhood buddy Willie Guitierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man who does dirty work for Frank such as paying off politicians and sabotaging trains repaired by competing firms.
His first night out with Willie is a very bad one indeed. When the yardmaster tells Willie to get lost, and adds the kicker that Electric Rail is going under, Willie kills him. Assaulted by a cop while standing guard, Leo turns the tables on him and beats him to a fare-thee-well. Shortly thereafter, when it looks as though the officer might recover enough to identify his assailant, Willie drives Leo to the hospital, where he’s to polish off the cop once and for all. Just as the fearful Leo is about to do the deed, he’s interrupted and flees the scene. When the policeman IDs Leo as the suspect, Willie tells the rest of the family that Leo also killed the yardmaster, putting Leo in the familiar genre position of being hunted by both the law and his ruthless family.
Mixed in with criminal goings-on are some not especially compelling personal issues. Leo’s mother Val (Ellen Burstyn), who always dreamed of her only son becoming an upstanding businessman, frets over him and has a heart condition that’s worsened when cops break into her home looking for Leo. Val’s sister, Kitty (Faye Dunaway), is now married to Frank and is concerned that her daughter, Erica (Charlize Theron), is headed toward marriage with the lowlife Willie. For Frank’s part, business isn’t looking too good, as policies giving minority-owned companies hefty slices of city business are reducing his share, and his minions’ sleazy tactics are making his government contacts uneasy.
After a very unpleasant turn of events, in which Erica makes the mistake of intervening in Willie’s search for Leo and Frank finally decides to squeeze Willie out, it all comes down to official hearings, just as it does in “On the Waterfront.” The gruff, constipated Leo has hardly spoken as many words in the entire picture as does at this point, when we’re supposed to feel a certain uplift at his opening up. But nothing previously revealed of Leo’s character suggests the inclination or the motivation to act as he does at the climax, which undercuts the credibility and emotional impact of his decision.
Pic’s style suggests an attempt on every level to elevate genre material to meaningful status. The desaturated softness of Harris Savides’ lensing may rep an effort to convey the moral relativism of the milieu, but it also has the effect of muting the drama and making the images less than vivid. Worse is the score by the normally reliable Howard Shore, which lays on the sense of dread and foreboding with a trowel. Relatively unfamiliar Queens locations strike a fresh note.
Of the capable thesps, Caan and Phoenix come off best, the former lending weight to a man who has devoted his life to making deals that have compromised his own character as well as those of others, the latter, after “Gladiator,” adding to his rep for impressively essaying villainous characters after making his name in offbeat, sensitive roles. Wahlberg is OK but over-restrained as the unlettered pawn in the family hierarchy who finally asserts himself, Burstyn and Dunaway have little to do, and Theron is seriously miscast as a strangely trampy-looking gal who just goes with the flow. In a small but very visible part, singer Steve Lawrence cuts a perfect figure as a smooth veteran politician.