The Yards (2000)

James Gray | 1hr 55min

Recently paroled gangster Leo Handler finds himself at a similar turning point in The Yards as the one which Michael Corleone faced many years before in The Godfather. The decision to either follow in the footsteps of the family business or turn against its patriarch is absolutely pivotal to both journeys, and one that James Gray chooses to examine even closer than his predecessor, Francis Ford Coppola. In placing the dilemma under intensive moral examination, a pervasive unpredictability underscores Gray’s dramatic tensions, constantly ready to tip over these family dynamics into full-blown antagonism. Even if The Yards is not a wholly original crime drama, it still retains a freshness in moving its study of classical corruption and redemption arcs in inverse yet complementary directions.

Perhaps in 2000, three years out from Boogie Nights, it might have seemed that Mark Wahlberg was destined for a career trajectory that would place him among the best actors of his generation. He is by no means weak here as the morally conflicted Leo, but within this well-rounded cast of established and newer talents, he is not afforded a lot of chances to dominate the screen. It is his young co-stars, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix, who often carry greater urgency in their performances, and Phoenix especially whose disintegrating integrity as Willie sets in motion some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.

An exciting early performance from a young Joaquin Phoenix, who would go on to collaborate with Gray several more times.

On the older end of the spectrum, it is surely no coincidence that Gray calls in James Caan from The Godfather to play the equivalent Marlon Brando role, bearing more than a striking resemblance to the Don with his thin moustache and slicked back hair. Frank Olchin heads this shady crime family from the dim light of his office which itself looks modelled off Vito Corleone’s, and in his close circle of confidantes Gray pulls in the talents of veteran actors Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn. It is almost as if Coppola acolyte himself is setting in motion a passing of the torch between older and younger generations of Hollywood stars, lending an even greater weight to the ensuing havoc wreaked upon cultural traditions.

Frank’s office and character very much styled off Vito Corleone from The Godfather, and played by none other than James Caan, Sonny Corleone.

It is fitting that we first meet Leo leaving prison on the same railway that his family exerts corrupt control over, heading towards a welcome home party where each key player is introduced one by one amid joyous celebrations. Gray lights this world with murky yellow and green lighting, not unlike that which David Fincher was innovating at the time with Seven and Fight Club, and the visual impact is tangible. Through hospitals, houses, and train yards, moral ambiguity dominates our characters’ journeys, wrapping them in an uneasy atmosphere crafted by their elders as if to test their loyalty and fortitude.

The train yard is a gorgeous set piece in its staging, lighting, and narrative power – the inciting incident upon which this story hinges.
Much like The Godfather, an attempted assassination taking place in a hospital, though here it is our protagonist setting out to kill.

As Leo and Willie travel along divergent paths from the inciting incident that sees them accidentally hospitalise one man and kill another while out on a vandalising job, The Yards grows progressively gloomier in its lighting, accompanying them with an ever-encroaching visual darkness. Guilt weighs heavy on both their consciences, and yet most of the blame lands squarely Leo. Perhaps this is partially what motivates him to seek some sort of redemption, while a relatively unscathed Willie submits to his angriest, most jealous impulses.

Superb dim lighting concealing pieces of the mise-en-scène, or otherwise forcing us to pick out key pieces of information. Visual comparisons can be drawn to the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness, on The Godfather, as well as David Fincher.

Ultimately, it is not just the actions of one man speaking the truth that brings down this crime family. It is just as much the reckless impulsivity of its own loyal children that sees them fall from glory. If Leo is who Michael could have been had he turned against the family, then The Yards might as well be an alternate proposition to The Godfather’s statement of generational decline. Whether it is by corrupting old traditions or bringing them down through the force of justice, the ties of family are not destined to last long in these modern worlds. At least in The Yards, the youth who survive retain some dignity.

Much like Coppola before him, Gray loves his long dissolves of faces over wide shots, making for slow, thoughtful scene transitions.

The Yards is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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