Anybody with an abiding interest in corruption within the wonderful world of the Queens County, New York transit system should find James Gray’s new film absorbing. But the rest of us–probably more than 99% of the viewing public–will doubtlessly find the slow, somber picture considerably less rewarding. “The Yards” is so old-fashioned and dim (in terms of both cinematography and narrative credibility) that it will doubtlessly roll through theatres with very few passengers climbing on board.
The plot hardly offers any surprises. Young Leo Handler (a pallid, withdrawn Mark Wahlberg) is released from prison after serving time for auto theft; as he’s welcomed back by his long-suffering mom (tepid Ellen Burstyn, showing none of the zest she exhibits in “Requiem for a Dream”), who’s also afflicted with a bad ticker, it becomes clear that Leo took the rap solo, refusing to turn in his gang, including best bud Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix, slick but unconvincing)–no snitch, he. Now that he’s out and wanting to make some honest dough he’s promised help by Frank Olchin (somnolent James Caan, given none of the archly humorous dialogue he has in “The Way of the Gun”), the owner of a firm that services the county transit authority’s trains who’s also become Leo’s uncle through marriage to his mom’s widowed sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway, so restrained that you’ll probably have trouble believing it’s her). Willie is making big bucks working for Frank, and is also romantically involved with Kitty’s daughter Erica (Charlize Theron, looking drawn and anxious in a black wig that renders her almost unrecognizable), with whom Leo was once close. Rather than putting Leo together with Willie, however, Frank suggests he go to machinists’ school, something our hero, needing quick cash to help out poor ma, resists; and before long Willie has inveigled a role for his old buddy in his operation, which basically involves sabotaging rival companies so that Frank can maintain his cozy relationship with shady pols Arthur Mydanick (Steve Lawrence, absurdly slick) and Seymour Korman (Tony Musante, grubbily conniving). Almost immediately, though, disaster strikes–there’s a death and an assault on a cop, and before long poor Leo is on the lam, pursued both by law enforcement and by his own supposed friends. The matter is complicated by the fact that mom’s heart can’t take the strain, and that Erica becomes an object of contention between Leo and Willie, who now seems willing to sell out his old friend.
What follows is a hoary tale of a protagonist torn between the “code of the street,” based on absolute loyalty to family and buds, and his desire to clear himself and make things right. It’s a story that, however decrepit, might still hold one’s attention if it were invested with some local color and a sense of urgency. But as Gray chooses to direct the piece, it has none of the exotic atmosphere of his previous flick, 1994’s “Little Odessa,” whose Russian-Jewish setting had a flavor all its own even if the plot was obvious and the pacing too deliberate; the best he can offer here is a generic urban mob-and-bad-politicos milieu, filmed in dark, autumnal hues that call to mind the “Godfather” pictures (a connection reinforced by Caan’s presence). Nor does the director give the narrative much vitality: he encourages the actors to take their time, with the result that they all come across as more than a little enervated. (Caan, for example, often appears to be sleepwalking, although he does occasionally strike a pose reminiscent of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, as though Sonny had survived and taken over the family trade.) The air of fateful melancholy is accentuated by Howard Shore’s moody score, which sounds like leftover Debussy on valium; it might be impressive in a concert hall, but it merely adds to the feeling of ponderous gloom here. All the sluggishness accentuates some bad plot holes: it’s hardly credible, for example, that a fellow being pursued for murder and assaulting a cop could successfully haunt his sick mother’s apartment building for days, even going so far as to indulge in a protracted fistfight on the sidewalk outside, without being apprehended–indeed, the incompetence of the police (and of the criminals) in “The Yards” is so staggering that one can scarcely believe anything about it. And the picture moves so slowly that it’s impossible to sustain one’s credulity in the face of such narrative lapses.
What Gray seems to be striving for is a modern version of the kind of fable about a man fighting the forces of urban evil arrayed against him that was popular in the 1970s–something akin to “Serpico,” for instance. But whatever his intentions, “The Yard” is more like an episode of “Law and Order” from which the heroic cops and lawyers have been excised (along with the patented surprising twist) and which has been stretched out to feature length simply by slowing down the action. Watching this bunch of mugs slog their way to their foreordained end just isn’t very intriguing or enlightening; the picture lacks the pizzazz of energetic pulp, but doesn’t replace it with any compensatory insight or power.