The Yards

on October 20, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
   It has been six years since James Gray's promising and precocious feature debut "Little Odessa." Now 30, Gray returns with his eagerly awaited follow-up, "The Yards," a moody, mature and equally dark study of corruption, betrayal and human nature, set in the subway yards of Queens. Rich in fatalistic overtones, "The Yards" combines the spirit of classic film noir with the familial complexity of "The Godfather" and the social realism of "On the Waterfront."

   Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Handler, a goodhearted young man just out of jail. Genuinely wanting to go straight, Leo arrives for a homecoming party attended by his devoted mom Val (Ellen Burstyn) and family members, including his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), Val's sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway), and Kitty's new husband Frank (James Caan). Also present is Leo's best friend--now Erica's boyfriend--Willie Guitierrez (Joaquin Phoenix).

   Hinting at the complex and layered relationships among the extended family, Gray quickly sets up Leo's dilemma: He needs work, but his prison record and parole status leave him few options. As a favor to his wife, the well-connected Frank offers Leo a low-level position. But Willie, who works for Frank as a collection agent, brings Leo on his team for some lucrative but highly illegal jobs. When a pickup goes awry, a station worker is killed and a cop left critically wounded. Though Willie is to blame, at Frank's urging, he fingers his best friend.

   With forced rapidity, Leo begins to perceive both the limits of Willie's loyalty and the enormous extent of Frank's influence on local politicos. Going into hiding, he tries to outrun Willie's henchmen, which makes for some tense, action-filled moments. Tautly edited and thankfully lacking the overblown musical score that has become so commonplace among action movies these days, the chase scenes are heart-stoppingly effective.

   "The Yards" is bleak, to be sure, but Gray's writing is so smart and his direction so forceful that it gives the material exceptional texture and depth. The actors give richly shaded, beautifully nuanced performances, especially Wahlberg, Phoenix and Theron, each doing some of their finest work to date.    Starring Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and Ellen Burstyn. Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Matt Reeves. Produced by Nick Wechsler, Paul Webster and Kerry Orent. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for language, violence and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 108 min.

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