Strikingly old-fashioned in both form and content, The Yards is the kind of morality tale which takes for granted the inherent rightness of a specific set of actions. This idea comes off as downright radical in our era of glib cynicism, but director James Gray is working from a set of principles which are as established and endangered as the patronage system at the heart of his second film.
Newly paroled Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) quickly gets absorbed into the high-flying orbit of his best friend, Willie Guiterrez (Joaquin Phoenix), the glad-handing agent of Frank Olchin (James Caan), whose lucrative business repairs and maintains New York’s subway trains. Willie greases the squeaky wheels, paying off officials and keeping Frank in the loop when new city contracts are distributed.
In this old-boys network, the women are kept on the sidelines, but their influence is crucial, especially Leo’s beleaguered mother (Ellen Burstyn) and Frank’s politically savvy wife (Faye Dunaway). But it’s Erica (Charlize Theron), Willie’s girlfriend, Leo’s cousin, and the woman they both love unconditionally, whose inchoate frustrations drive the action.
Leo, Willie and Erica are a triptych of good intentions gone awry in this beautifully nuanced tale of corruption, as trapped in slippery morality and cycles of crime as the Russian immigrants of Little Odessa (1994), Gray’s haunting debut. Both films are about the ways young people inherit fatalism, but The Yards (co-written with Matt Reeves) is also in the grand Hollywood tradition of the defiant whistleblower standing against institutionalized wrongdoing, even if it results in new villains supplanting old ones.
James Gray, with his painterly use of color and a remarkable eye for the telling detail, renders the inevitable tragedy of The Yards with the compassionate detachment of a creator who believes in free will but can’t help seeing its limitations.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].