The Yards (2000)
User ReviewsAdd a Review
Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is just returning home from prison on a car theft conviction when the movie opens. He is repentant and sincerely wants to go straight. The deck is stacked against him though, because everyone he knows other than his mother (Ellen Burstyn), aunt (Faye Dunaway) and cousin (Charlize Theron) is corrupt. Leo applies for a job with his uncle Frank (James Caan) who is a contractor supplying parts to the New York subway system. He is reunited with an old friend, Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix) who is currently working for Frank. Willie is eyeball deep in shady deals including the sabotage of other suppliers. One night a sabotage mission goes wrong and Leo assaults a policeman while trying to escape the scene. A manhunt ensues and both the cops and Leo's uncle are trying to hunt him down. With sinister intent, Uncle Frank wants to find him first so he won't blow the lid on the crooked dealings.
The story, written and directed by James Gray, delves into various character studies that bog down at times. However, speaking as a person who once lived there, it is an excellent rendering of New York attitudes and mannerisms, and includes plenty of not-so-glamorous shots of New York's seething underbelly. This is a New Yorker's eye view of the city, far from the glitz of Broadway, Wall Street and the art galleries. It shows the competitiveness and machismo of a segment of society known only to the locals.
The acting by the ensemble cast is outstanding. All the players capture the essence of the New York middle class gestalt beautifully. Mark Wahlberg delivers a somber but resolute character trapped in a vortex of graft and corruption. His performance is understated yet powerful. James Caan is one of the best at playing the small-time racketeer and he nails it again with his portrayal of the dirty dealing supplier. Joaquin Phoenix also shines as Willie, giving him a macho personality and the ability to rationalize any act according to his own code of morality. The cast includes Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn and Charlize Theron in strong supporting roles. Steve Allen makes an extended cameo as the tainted commissioner.
This film is excellent and has been sadly overlooked by the distributors and the public. I rated it a 9/10 despite a somewhat familiar storyline, because the presentation is so precise and the style so un-sanitized. The film has a real New York feeling to it, especially recognizable to anyone who has lived there. It has my vote for the sleeper of 2000.
Mark Wahlberg isn't a great actor, but he delivers what the character requires. Charlize Theron isn't in her element playing a Queens-chick, but aside from a faltering accent, she does pretty well. Excellent acting is delivered by Joachin Phoenix, as well as veterans Caan, Dunaway, and Ellen Burstyn. The Yards is a good movie, although admittedly, not for the "average" movie-going audience. It likely won't meet their expectations of what a "good" movie is.
Leo finds that his aunt (Dunaway) has married one of the biggest contractors, Frank Olchin (Caan). With no money and a patrol officer breathing down his back, his mother (Burstyn) in bad shape, Leo turns to Frank to help him out by giving him a job in his successful business. Leo wants to follow in his best friend, Willie's (Phoenix) footsteps in the business, 'cause it seems Willie is doing ok for himself, with enough cash to spare for his girlfriend (Theron) and consequently Leo's cousin and one-time-love. But when a money-deal goes wrong, Willie kills a yard-master and Leo beats a cop into a coma - something that could see him revisiting prison and getting a life sentence. Now Leo is on the run, and blamed for the murder aswell. The business that welcomed him with open arms, is now looking to get rid of him, before he brings down all they worked for.
The Yards is slow at times. The story-telling appears to go at a snails pace, but thats ok, because the story-tellers (the actors) are more than enthralling enough to entertain for the whole 110 minutes. Wahlberg is deep and moody as always, and while the performance mirrors alot of his previous works, he still seems to have 'something' that keeps you hooked. Theron proves she is more than just a pretty face as she plays a soft-spoken character who has much to hide and slowly reveal as the plot thickens. But the out-standing performance is Joaquin Phoenix. This man can do no wrong and is seriously one of the best actors of our time. He is disturbingly dark at times, but can easily switch gears and play-out the most emotionally intense scene with just a single tear running down his cheek. this man is amazing, and one day justice should be carried out and he should be handed an Oscar.
Watch this film, if for nothing more than to check out the Wahlberg/Phoenix punch-up which the actors really participated in (and were apparently black and blue the next day). Great, great film.
Nothing else to say, simply watch it whenever you have the chance. You won't be disappointed.
Basically "The Yards" tells the story of Leo, a working class young man who returns home from a stint in prison to his ailing mother. His best friend, Willie, takes him on at Leo's step-uncle's subway train outfitting business, where things aren't exactly above-the-board. Leo gets more involved in the business and things go awry. And along the way, there's a hundred and one subplots.
This movie had some nice moments, and great acting, but it can't rise above a script that tries to pack too much plot into too little time.
But if you stop to look at it, it's not quite perfect. The color of a scarf clashes with the rest of mom's outfit. That squirrel in the tree only has three legs. Little things to let you know that the artist, while talented, still hasn't perfected his craft. Or, more likely, if the painting weren't so excellently rendered, you wouldn't be able to point out the scarf, or the squirrel, or any of the finer details.
Like this painting, we have "The Yards," a story centering on Leo Handler (Wahlberg), freshly released from prison and trying to look after himself and his mother. The story is well-told, the characters (with the exception of Dunaway) are carefully acted, and this character-driven drama is fascinating to watch.
But taken as a whole, parts of the film were just overlooked. Wahlberg acts with a blank stare, his character just as dumb as his character in "Boogie Nights." None of the female characters exist for any reason except for the audience to feel pity for them. Every death is predictable, minutes before it happens. And the entire story spirals into such a depressing destination, I can't at all think of who I could recommend this film to. It was well-made, but James Gray would do better as a playwright with material like this.
An exquisitely well-made, beautifully directed film. The pictures are wonderful and the performances are excellent, but be warned that this film is a serious, serious downer. May the director find lighter material soon.
The chief protagonist is Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) a young man returning home after a spell in prison. As is obligatory in such tales, he is intent on going straight, but finds himself lured by his smooth-operating buddy Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix) into the semi-legitimate business operations of his step-uncle Frank Olchin (James Caan).
Frank is finding it increasingly tough to win subway contracts, due to competition from rival Hispanic firms, who are being aided by preferential treatment policies for minorities. This has led him to task Willie with sabotaging the operations of his competitors so they fail to meet municipal work standards. When one of these sabotage missions goes violently wrong Leo finds out just how fragile loyalties can be. Nepotism and friendship soon evaporate when their is a murder to be explained, and Leo must fend for himself if he is not to take the fall.
The film provides an intriguing look into a sordid and incestuous community in which family and business interests intertwine, with connections, favours and dirty tricks being the accepted way of getting things done. The protagonists are not simply bad people, but are proper characters, compromised as much by the environment they operate in, as by lax personal morality. In the aftermath of the murder, their betrayals are not mere cold-blooded expedients, but anguished decisions driven by instinctive self-preservation.
Overall this is a subtly observed drama, skillfully acted (particularly by Joaquin Phoenix) and handsomely shot. The final climax may be just a tad overwrought, but personally it could not spoil an otherwise admirable film.
Most people may find the Shakespeare-like tragedy not their kind of cake. I find it refreshing none the less: I'm sick and tired of all the good guys/bad guys kind of movies who all end happy.
Thank you, James Gray, for your amazing masterpiece!
Some minor chances taken here. It's a new fashion to make actors' pictures. Altman's been doing it for some time, but now we have guys like Anderson and Grey who bank everything on commitment. And these are committed actors -- they obviously are working hard, and it shows. It may work better in a theatrical setting, but this stuff only connects when you engage the viewer visually. (Or in some other metaphysical wrapper.)
And that's where this falls down. It's not the script as you would think, because in films like this, the story is the merest excuse for powerful images of some kind. You can flash like PT. You can build a wrapped environment for the actors to populate like Ridley. You can play games with the narrative like Kubric. But you've got to do something with that character called the eye other than rehash Godfather lighting.
Interesting to see what this guy does next.
Released in 1994, "Little Odessa" stars Tim Roth as Joshua Shapira, a volatile criminal who has been exiled by his family. A "prodigal son returns" narrative, the film watches as Roth returns to his family home. Though his relatives still distrust him, Joshua is idolised by his younger brother, little Reuben Shapira (Edward Furlong). The film ends, as most "prodigal son" tales do, with Reuben dying, paying for his brother's sins.
"Little Odessa" was Gray's debut. It's a very good drama, well acted by the always electric Tim Roth, but the film's ethnic details are unconvincing and Gray falters in his final act with an obvious, overblown sequence in which little Reuben is accidentally gunned down.
Gray followed "Odessa" up with "The Yards" (2000), a crime drama set in the commuter rail yards of New York City. The film's structure is similar to "Odessa", and sees Mark Wahlberg playing an ex-convict who returns home after a short stint in prison. Wahlberg attempts to stay clean, to keep his nose out of crime, but is drawn back into the criminal underworld by a friend played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film retains the "brotherhood dynamics" of "Odessa", Wahlberg playing the "good son" who eventually turns on his suffocating sibling. Once again the film ends with a ridiculously over-the-top death sequence.
While "The Yards" has a certain, smothering pretentiousness about it, convinced about its own importance (it's lit like Rembrandt, street fights are filmed like Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers" and it's reaching for the tone of Coppola's "The Godfather"), Gray nevertheless cooks up some wonderful strokes, like a beautifully sensitive welcome-home party, a wordless assassination attempt and a fine, aching performance by Wahlberg. It's a great mixed bag.
Gray then directed "We Own The Night", arguably his best crime flick. The "good brother/bad brother" motif returns, this time with Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix playing a pair of brothers on either side of the law. Phoenix's a perpetually high playboy who owns a nightclub frequented by drug-runners and mafia types, and Wahlberg's a straight-arrow cop trying to keep the streets clean. When the mafia unleashes an assassination campaign on local cops, Phoenix switches allegiances, goes undercover and attempts to take down the mob. There are touches of "Donnie Brasco", "Rush", "Point Break", "Serpico", "State of Grace", "Infernal Affairs" and every other "undercover cop" movie you can think of, but the film is beautifully lit, is atypically straight-faced and features a superb, rain-soaked car chase.
Some have suggested that Gray's trilogy should be celebrated for working in a "classical", almost conventionally Greek mould. That his conventionality suggests that all his characters are at the mercy of already in place contours, their fates forgone. Mostly, though, Gray's trilogy highlights the ways in which contemporary artists have struggled to conceive of a response to postmodernism.
The crime movies of, say, Tarantino and Scorsese, are unashamedly postmodern, toying with and regurgitating clichés from 1930s Warner machine gun operas and MGM crime flicks. They aren't about "crime", so much as they're pastiche jobs, jazzed up films about crime films. As a response to this aesthetic, artists who deem themselves "serious", who rightfully ask "what exactly comes next?", tend to look backwards at what came before, as though post-war modernism, by virtue of being modernism, is intrinsically "the solution". This leads to classically shot and written but wholly regressive fare like Gray's trilogy, which essentially unscrambles the world's Scorseses and Tarantinos and puts you right back in the 1940s, minus the irony and flippancy.
But you can't go backwards in this way; your audience will always be ten steps ahead and there will always be a huge chasm between your solemnity and the tired insights your film delivers. This is why true progressive works in the genre, for example fare like "The Wire", which actively attempts a cognitive mapping of both global capitalism and crime, are neither modernist or postmodern, whilst possessing the vital traits of both. Philosophers have alternatively coined this new movement "neoprimitivism", "pseudomodernism", "participatism", "post-post modernism", but the one that seems to be sticking is "new modernism".
Whatever you call it, this hypothetical movement rejects postmodern nihilism (nothing matters, there is no "truth", it's just a film), actively tries to convey the complexities of our world, and covertly believes that it is possible and necessary for individuals to make value judgements, take stands, approach objectivity, and back facts up. It is modernist in its desires to "understand", "teach", "decipher" and "make better" the world, and in its emphasis on culture, society, technology and politics. The movement doesn't reject postmodernism, but co-opts its tropes and bends them to suit its aim, questioning agency, subjectivity and attempting to piece together the fragments and multiple perspectives that typify complex systems. In short, truly relevant crime films simultaneously simulate our contemporary environment of junk, noise, commerce and static, before proceeding to decode, organise and target roots. As William Gibson said way back in the 1980s, future great artist will function like search engines, mapping and making sense of the detritus. Gray goes backwards to when there was less noise.
7.9/10 - Worth one viewing.
The film has some classic black cinema memories mixed with the "thriller" of the 70's. Indeed, what is proposed in James Gray is a journey into the past, not only because history tells us has a certain aesthetic to the 80, but explain how the story has many more points of contact with the past.
Gray show waiver dizzying stunts and chases. Instead, a tight script clearly dominates the important thing is the characters involved in the plot and the wonderful treatment that makes them the director. Although one could say that the film is on three bands: a "Leo" who has been in prison without betraying his fellow raids, but now we will see, by force of circumstances in a similar situation, while "Willie" exercised a powerful influence, image of the winner, but with feet of clay, and above all his uncle, "Fran" a person who from the beginning has a lot to hide. But Gray does not neglect other important characters in the plot such as premium "Leo", "Erica" (Charlize Theron) with little presence but a lot of weight argument (although rather implicit, we sense only on small details) or the mother of this "Kitty" (Ellen Burstyn), without forgetting the presence of Faye Dunaway playing the wife of "Fran".
The merit of the script is that every character has a bearing on the story, aided by the excellent director of actors that showcases the director. All are fabulous, but it is true that it should be stressed above all Joaquin Phoenix and James Caan true aces of interpretation, well above Mark Wahlberg an overly soft.
The third pillar of the film is staging a gloomy photography when we see the very studied characters outdoors and play of light and colour when it comes to indoor scenes. This achieves a gloomy atmosphere, which gives perfectly murky tone to what we are telling.
A dry film, resounding round without being at all, remembers the good times get the police and noir cinema film.
This could not be further from the truth. There are only a couple of subplots, and they are very basic, easy-to-understand concepts that do not get in the way of the main theme.
I would also contest that this is a 'romance'. Whilst this is one of the subplots, putting it under 'romance' as one of the main genres is mildly misleading.
The performances from all central actors are excellent. As my title suggests this is a slow-burner but Walburg puts in a great performance and I DID care what happened to him in the end.
Oh, and listen out for the soundtrack. It really is quite striking.
Leo (Wahlberg's character) returns from prison to a great welcome home. He just wants to become a productive citizen again. His cousin's Erika (Theron) is dating his best friend, Willie (Phoenix), who's working for her step-dad, Frank (Caan). Frank wants Leo to take the high road towards a new life, but Willie's encouraging the low...and what young man can resist such temptation?
Although Leo, his Mom (Burstyn) and aunt (Dunaway), all want him to go straight, Leo can't see that Willie's way is more than a shade crooked. Before Leo gets a chance to really choose, Willie makes a choice that sends the families, the yards, and borough politics on a collision course. Each step along the way, folks make their prisoner's dilemma choices with disastrous results for all.
The film is shot dark, evoking the barely colorized films of the 50s and 60s, but clearly takes place within the last decade. The noir mood is held by the high quality of the acting (I don't usually like Wahlberg, but for once he doesn't get in the way of his natural charm). Writer/Director James Gray keeps us in the mood, spending just enough time letting us glimpse the hard choices that everyone makes...and to see why they choose poorly over and over again.
We want Leo to choose the clean life, but we can see why he doesn't (and why we might not in his shoes). We want Willie to walk away rather than act rashly, but we can see why he can't. We want Uncle Frank to do the right thing, but it's clear why he won't.
It's too bad that Gray had to ruin the ending with a been-there-done-that Hollywood ending. Mind you: he's done a better job than other corruption-and-politics movies, but it still feels a bit like a cop-out (you should pardon the expression).
Despite the ending, it's a great film. And you'll find yourself still thinking about Leo and company's choices for days afterward.
I rated this 8/10.
[If you don't like slow, moody, noirs, give this a pass.]
It's been 2 months. The Yards hasn't left me. Something about this movie, the characters and plot just stay in the back of my mind. I highly recommend this movie. I can't say exactly why, but I loved this film.
While the lack of NYC accents causes a bit of suspended belief, the strong acting and devastating screenplay by Gray and Matt Reeves more than compensate.
The depiction of NYC corruption is heads and tails above Sidney Lumet's "City Hall," here with demonstrations of how family and ethnicity get very intermingled in NYC politics. Nepotism is the ultimate explanation.
More, the screenplay is cinematically presented -- the points are made visually and through body language and situation, not banged over our heads with explication.
In my past, I worked both for the Queens Borough President (the one whose name is actually mentioned in the movie and no one west of the Hudson let alone younger will have the slightest idea what the reference means) and for the MTA, where we were constantly stunned by what went on in the bowels of the Transit Authority, while my husband has supervised City contractors for ethics violations, so I was amazed how mostly accurate the movie was--including a cameo by Councilman Peter Vallone as a councilman. (Just a small quibble that this movie would have been more accurate if it had been set in a time period before the Board of Estimate was declared unconstitutional and contracting procedures were changed.)
While Cherlize Theron is somewhat miscast and mis-dressed, Joaquin Phoenix blows the screen away. He steals every scene from Mark Wahlberg, who is supposed to be the moral center of the movie, and his last scenes alone are explosive.
The older male actors are as impeccably cast as "The Sopranos," though the ethnicity of the characters vs. the actors is a bit confusing. James Caan is more comfortable in this patriarchal role than he was in "The Way of the Gun;" he clearly felt at home in Astoria. Steve Lawrence (yeah, THAT Steve Lawrence) doesn't have Donald Manes's charisma as Borough President, though he actually does look a bit like him. Faye Dunaway is surprisingly spot-on; I've been to many of those Queens political dinners and saw wives dressed and acting like her. Ellen Burstyn, in the third bridge-and-tunnel-mom role I've seen her in this month, got to have her hair combed this time.
There is a surprising lack of pop songs on the soundtrack, as so many would have been appropriate, instead it's mostly Howard Shore's score. I kept thinking of Bruce Springsteen singing "Nothing feels better than blood on blood. . ."
There's wonderful views and uses of the Queens landscape throughout this movie. This fully realizes an outer borough. If Gray is on his way to do a pentateuch on crime in NYC, I'll go to the ones on each borough.
There was a guy in the audience who had been an extra or a one-liner or something in the movie, but who didn't provide additional insight as he mostly talked to his friend about his upcoming auditions than the making of this movie.
(originally written 10/29/2000)