Director James Gray’s follow-up to his debut, Little Odessa, is an oddly familiar film, a film about a torn family, a criminal in hiding and the ever building downward spiral of events. One could argue that Gray brings nothing new here, simply changing actors, dialogue and settings of Little Odessa and giving it a new title. Yet even if that is the case, Gray notices his weaknesses from the first film and builds upon them, creating a tight, succinct picture that remains a lot more watchable and elegantly paced than his other work.
Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), a small time criminal, gets out of the joint to a party he’s not prepared for. He awkwardly bumbles about and tries to reconnect with his ailing mother, Val Handler (Ellen Burstyn). He just wants to settle down and provide from her but the only job he can get will require taking some money up front for training. Leo decides to take the fast road and falls in with a shadier side of his uncle’s organization led by Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix).
From there it’s no surprise that things lead into a natural descent. Leo ends up being the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. James Gray tautly crafts the script into a series of masterful set of depressing events guised as choices. Given the personalities of the charters and the lack of alternatives once the one action is set in motion, everything else slowly falls down like dominos. The characters struggle, but they never have a choice, making the tale all the more tragic.
Even more tragic is how deeply the events divide the individuals from each other. What starts as the family that can sit down and eat with each other quickly devolves into a series of hurt and frustrated individuals. As the film goes on what starts as a crowded room of people slowly decreases into more splintered factions until it’s the individuals within a tightly knit group. Any attempts to reconnect and reconcile only end in bursts of violence.
And Gray comes to grips with how to use the violence. While he used it as crass punctuation in Little Odessa, here he uses it to flesh out the drama and tighten the pacing of the film. He uses the threat of violence and the turmoil it causes for the character who would like nothing more than to not uses violence to create more of a pull towards that tragic, inevitable downfall of events. It might seem a bit of hyperbole, but The Yards has some of the most tense, suspenseful and effective uses of violence because it’s all in service to the drama and characters.
And the personalities of the characters create just as much conflict and tension as the violence. Leo has done time when he could have ratted out his accomplices and walked. He’s a man of honor and his principles are what lands him into trouble. Willie is in denial, trying to pass off as a person and an ethnicity he isn’t and this too gets him in all kinds of trouble in his professional field as he comes head to head with the truths he can’t escape.
The final touch is Gray’s signature use of warm and alluring imagry. The warm orange and yellow hues paint across all players, presenting a visual softness to all the characters. And the nighttime scenes are movie magic, with a visual allure that few modern directors can achieve. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the power of the image in film as one gets caught up in the drama of it all but in James Gray films the images are essential to understanding the drama.
And for all that The Yards does so much better than Little Odessa, it’s hard not to simply label it as a reiteration. It’s so masterfully done that it might not be a problem. Both films deal with similar stories of families, crime, tragedy, estrangement and decline and both have similar key features but The Yards is a masterwork in cinematography, pacing, character arcs and drama. And by the end it hardly matters. Gray may have taken us on the same journey but the way he got us there was so much smoother that it tantalizes us so that we can hardly fault it for any shortcomings it might have.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing