This restrained film is a quiet study of human nature; of how people make choices they know are right or wrong; and of how sometimes they just get swept up and make choices without quite thinking at all.
The Yards opens with Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) on his way home to Queens borough in New York – on a train, where a guard gives him the once over – from doing time for car theft. His long-suffering mother Val (Ellen Burstyn), who raised him alone and now suffers from a weak heart, has organised a welcome home party for him. Leo’s aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway), cousin Erica (Charlize Theron) and old friends are on hand; but Kitty’s cool towards him and it’s obvious that Erica and he have a history.
Leo’s step-uncle Frank Olchin (James Caan), his aunt’s second husband, is the corrupt boss of a subway repair company. As a favour to Val, he gives Leo an interview for a job, but suggests he heads off for a few years to train as a machinist. Instead, Leo hooks up with his old friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who is now Erica’s boyfriend and is also working for the repair company – paying off the right people in order to land contracts.
A payoff at the yards goes horribly wrong when Willie murders a relcalcitrant bribe-taker and Leo nearly kills a cop. The gang forces Leo to finish off the cop in his hospital bed; foiled by the return of a doctor, Leo makes an escape instead. He’s let down by nearly everyone who’s in a position to him, as they scramble to cover their own backs.
In the meantime, Erica has become engaged to Willie despite her mother’s disapproval, and Val has a turn with her heart.
At times, the script seems to be unsure about what direction to take, hovering between focusing on the members of the family and their relations with each other, and on the chase for Leo. This dual focus continues until the end of the film, with the monumental nature of Leo’s decision at the end of the film – it seems almost an afterthought – being juxtoposed with a family tragedy. But somehow the balance works, with the journey towards the film’s ending being equally as important as its destination.
The film showcases a macho world, where women aren’t breaking any barriers; they’re either mothers or wanting to be, while the men are the ones huddling in dusty backrooms making the deals. This creates a somewhat dated feel that isn’t really shaken off.
The casting, however, is impeccable. Wahlberg’s performance is suitably understated – the darkened car scene before he heads off to kill the cop in hospital shows that he can really act – while Phoenix plays the ambitious but morally corrupt and slowly disintegrating Willie with heart. James Caan’s performance is also of note, playing a man who’s just trying to make a living, but teeters on the edge of the abyss of evil.
Director of photography Harris Savides and cinematographer Gordon Willis have also done a fine job – oddly enough, there are some captivating shots in particular of buildings and their interiors.
This is not an inspiring film, but rather a reassuring and solemn one. Sometimes the good guy pulls through, but it’s rarely a simple victory. The Yards bravely attempts to look at the complexity.