A character-driven film that depicts how an ex-con fits into big city corruption and how hunger for money and power spreads its black tentacles into the heart of a community. Its realism in a fastidiously plausible plot is given energy and life by an exemplary ensemble cast. The downside is how seriously it takes itself in a performance style that is consciously laid back. The idea is "less is more", which works very well for the actors among us who are difficult to repress, such as James Caan. But, while it suggests a sense of the documentary it loses a sense of voltage. One wishes it had more "juice", as in pacing.
Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), just emerging from prison for a car heist, restores himself to the bosom of his family and friends. He's lauded for not ratting anyone out and everyone wants to help him with a job. A meeting is immediately arranged with boss Frank Olchin (James Caan) his uncle by marriage who runs one of the businesses that prosper on city (New York) contracts for repairing and building subway trains ("The Yards" of the title). But, the best Frank does is to suggest Leo take a two year course in engineering to prepare for a job that "will be waiting for you". It's not explained why this family "Don"'s suggestion is so uncomprehending of the needs of the ex-con family member.
But, best buddy Willie Gutierrez (a very anglo-looking Joaquin Phoenix) is a chief goon for the firm and he has other ideas for his loyal friend. He takes Leo along for a few days of job training in the fine art of sabotaging a rival's trains and sinking their chances for new contracts. The rival firm is not eating it, however, and they strategically try to "buy" Willie to their side. Willie is having no part of that, however.
Willie is, after all, high up in the company echelon, has plenty of money to spread around and, best of all, is in love with the prized Erica Stoltz (a very hot, heavily eye-lined Charlize Theron) who is Frank's step-daughter. Leo, who clearly has eyes for her (and a history), as well, despite the cousin relationship, lurks in the shadows of her romance with Willie that progresses to a declaration of marriage -- one that doesn't come to be when she learns from Leo what her would-be fiance has been capable of.
In a back room denouement all the movers and shakers in borough government assemble in the cozy and collusive atmosphere of the subway commission, headed by borough chief Arthur Mydanick (Steve Lawrence). It's a nice demonstration of the tradeoffs that have kept the interested parties fat and satisfied for so long. You give a little; you get to stay in business -- at taxpayers' expense -- another day. But, they don't reckon with the albatross they can't shake, the young Leo who is not beholden to any of them.
It is lovely to see Ellen Burstyn (as Leo's mother, Val Handler) and Faye Dunaway (as Kitty Handler Olchin) lend so much skill and experience to this drama as sisters caught up in the flow of action and emotion created by their offspring and spouses. Their portrayals stand out in this dark and atmospheric piece that's replete with strong presences. Their intimate knowledge of one another's quirks and preferences, the unsaid as well as the very subtle words that pass between them, convince us utterly of their relationship as sisters. It's a display of deep understanding. Plus, they both look very fine, indeed.
Cinematographer Harris Savides ("Illuminata") captures the shadowy textures of the New York subway yards, city streets, subways and apartments in fine and fully appropriate style. Best, however, is his semi illumination of the principles with special regard to the in and out of shadows of Theron's round, lovely face, amply registering her emotions in the vital but spare planes of light.
Despite the quibbles we raise about "The Yards", we think the motion picture academy will consider this a film for award considerations, if for no other reason than, for the fine cast work. Also despite the quibbles, it's nice to see a film in which reality rules. In a fist fight between Leo and Willie, for example, the combatants wear themselves out trying to land a punch before either comes up with a knockout blow. The emotional point is made without hyperglandular effects suddenly conferring boxing prowess on one or both of them.
As for length, I'd give writer/director James Gray ("Little Odessa", 1994) the 115 minutes if the pace were a bit more energized in the pacing. Matt Reeves ("Gideon's Crossing", "Felicity", "Homicide: Life on the Street") was co-writer.
Rated A for Atmospheric.