Tuesday, November 07, 2017
Directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Matt Reeves, The Yards is the story of a convict who has been released from parole as he finds himself being part in a crime scheme with a friend for a subway rail yard leads to trouble. The film is a crime drama set in New York City where a man who went to jail for his friend deals with being drawn into a world that might put him back in prison as he also copes with loyalty and doing what is right. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, and James Caan. The Yards is an evocative and mesmerizing film from James Gray.
The film follows a young man who has returned from prison for a crime he didn’t commit as he is eager to lead a straight-and-narrow life only to be coerced by his best friend to be involved in the world of corruption relating to the subway train yards only for things to go wrong. It’s a film that is a bit about redemption but also about the fallacy of loyalties in the streets as this young man is just trying to find work and not get in trouble but he is lured into a world he doesn’t want to go back to. The film’s screenplay by James Gray and Matt Reeves explore the motivations of its characters such as the protagonist Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) who returns home as he learns that his mother Val (Ellen Burstyn) is dealing with a heart condition and wants to set things right for her. At his homecoming party that is attended by his mother, his aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway), his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), and best friend Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), Leo learns that Kitty’s new husband Frank Olchin (James Caan) could get him a job working at the railway car repair company.
Yet, Frank is unable to give Leo a job immediately though he offers to fund his studies for a two-year machinist program as Leo chooses to work closely with Willie, who also works for Frank, where he does bribes and such to get contracts against competing companies. It may give Leo some money in his pocket but he becomes uneasy as he also learns what Willie and his friends do in ruining other companies in order to get contracts where one night in an attempt to sabotage another company’s trains would lead to chaos as Leo gets into a scuffle with a police officer (David Zayas) and knocks him unconscious. Yet, that is nothing compared to what was happening at the same time where a yard master is killed as Leo becomes a suspect where he goes into hiding with a few people to trust. Among them is Erica whom Leo is close to, despite the fact that she’s engaged to Willie, as she would look after her aunt for Leo as she becomes aware of what had happened as she turns to her stepfather for help.
Gray’s direction does have elements of style in terms of the compositions that he creates as it play into the suspense and drama. Shot on location in New York City with much of it set in the boroughs of Queens, the film does play into this world that is away from the usual aspects of the city which is often set in Manhattan. Instead, Gray plays into this world that is a mixture of upper-class suburbia as it relates to the home that Frank and his family live in as well as the apartment that Leo shares with his mother. Gray’s approach to the compositions does having him using some wide shots not just in establishing the location but also this world where there is so much at stake in the world of the subways where companies are trying to compete to get contracts where it eventually becomes deadly.
Gray’s approach to the drama is more straightforward in the compositions where he uses some medium shots and close-ups as it relate to what the characters are reacting as well as what they’re dealing with. One noted scene is where Leo is being asked to kill the cop he knocked unconscious as a way to solve all of his problems where Gray uses the space of the room and everything in it to play into the suspense. It says a lot of who Leo is as well as the conflict he has in his loyalty to his friends but he’s also thinking about the fact that he might return to prison. It’s an effective scene as would the third act where it is about family as it relate to Leo’s relationship with his mother and Erica where he really cares about them with the latter as someone he can really trust. Even as he would make a bargain to ensure that he and the family would be safe despite the fact that he could still be public enemy number one against those he would rat out. Overall, Gray crafts a gripping yet compelling film about a former convict being lured into a deadly scheme where his loyalty towards friends is being tested.
Cinematographer Harris Savides does incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of low-key yet grimy lighting for the scenes set at night including scenes during black-outs and low-light situations while maintaining something natural for the daytime exterior scenes. Editor Jeffrey Ford does excellent work with the editing as it is very straightforward to play into the drama and suspense which includes a scene of Leo dealing with a hood wanting to kill him. Production designer Kevin Thompson, with set decorator Ford Wheeler and art director Judy Rhee, does fantastic work with the look of the home that Frank lives in with the family as well as the apartment that Leo lives with his mother.
Costume designer Michael Clancy does nice work with the costumes as it is mostly casual with some of the stylish clothes that Erica wears. Sound editor Phil Benson, along with sound designers Kyrsten Mate and Gary Rydstrom, does superb work with the sound in creating that atmosphere of how trains are repaired as well as the atmosphere of the streets including the hospital room scene which is very low-key yet also chilling. The film’s music by Howard Shore is brilliant for its orchestral-driven score that play into the suspense and drama while music supervisor Dana Sano provide a mixture of music from acts and artists like Macy Gray, Brand New Heavies, KRS-One, Peggy Lee, George Benson, and Petula Clark.
The casting by Douglas Aibel is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Chad Aaron as Erica’s little brother Bernard, David Zayas as Officer Jerry Rifkin whom Leo would knock unconscious, Joseph Ragno as Leo’s parole officer, Robert Montano as a railway yard contractor in Hector Gallardo whom Willie doesn’t like, Steve Lawrence as a boroughs president who wants to keep the murder quiet until after the election, and Tomas Milian as a rival contractor who feels cheated by Frank’s company and the politicians over contracts. Faye Dunaway is fantastic as Erica’s mother Kitty as a woman that doesn’t approve of the engagement between Erica and Willie as she is also concerned with what Frank is doing with his business. Ellen Burstyn is superb as Leo’s mother Val as a woman who is happy to see her son as she also copes with what is happening to him as it is affecting her health but knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong. James Caan is excellent as Frank Olchin as a railway repair contractor who wants to help Leo out in finding a good job as he later copes with the murder of yard securities officer where he tries to do some cover-up as well as make decisions that would later be troubling.
Charlize Theron is brilliant as Erica as Leo’s cousin/Willie’s girlfriend who is happy to see Leo back as she becomes concerned with what’s happening to him after being accused of murder while taking care of her aunt where she would learn about what happened which disturbs her. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable as Willie Gutierrez as Leo’s best friend who is part of a crew that helps sabotage rival subway trains as well as bribe officials where he goes too far into his work to the point that he thinks about getting rid of his best friend. Finally, there’s Mark Wahlberg in a marvelous performance as Leo Handler as convict who is on parole that is trying not to get into trouble as it’s a very restrained performance from Wahlberg as someone that is quiet as well as knowing what he had to do to save himself and those he cares about.
The Yards is a phenomenal film from James Gray. Featuring a great cast, top-notch cinematography, a chilling score, and captivating themes on loyalty and corruption. It’s a film that explores a world that is very competitive with those being caught in the middle of a dark and violent game where a man is forced to live by the code of the streets or do what is right. In the end, The Yards is a sensational film from James Gray.
James Gray Films: Little Odessa - We Own the Night – Two Lovers – The Immigrant (2013 film) - (The Lost City of Z) – (Ad Astra) - (The Auteurs #67: James Gray)
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