After only two features, James Gray is emerging as a distinctive, confidently unfashionable voice in American movies. The 31-year-old, whose sorrowful debut, Little Odessa, brought a bracing chill to the flushed, Tarantino-smitten indie landscape of the mid ’90s, seems intent on perfecting a single-mindedly downbeat fusion of ’70s-Hollywood grunge, autobiographical ethnography, and Greek tragedy. The Yards is nominally a tale of shady business dealings and local-government corruption in the subway yards of Sunnyside, but as in his earlier, frostier Brighton Beach hit-man drama, Gray’s real subject is the constricting force and painful attrition of family bonds. The Flushing-born director, whose father was a subway contractor, has apparently dredged up childhood memories and, with touching fearlessness, projected them onto the movie-backdrop of his youth: Coppola and Scorsese, On the Waterfront, Rocco and His Brothers.
Working-class Queens lad Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), the film’s designated stooge and moral conscience, returns home after serving time for auto theft. Determined to stay clear of trouble—not least for the sake of his fretful, ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn)—Leo seeks honest employment from Frank (James Caan), the wire-pulling train-parts mogul whom his Aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway) has married, only to wind up reluctant deputy to his boyhood pal Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), now Frank’s dirty-work henchman. To enrich the complications, Willie also happens to be dating Kitty’s daughter, Erica (Charlize Theron), a slinky kohl-eyed beauty whose every interaction with cousin Leo carries an incestuous frisson.
A botched attempt at competitor sabotage sets in motion Leo’s rapid downward spiral, and Gray never eases up on the sense of looming cosmic tragedy (Howard Shore’s studiedly oppressive score envelops the film like a shroud). The script, which Gray cowrote with Matt Reeves, isn’t always up to the boldly operatic style: Throwaway exchanges ring truer than declarative monologues, which tend to affix themselves like lead weights to the already grave proceedings. Still, Gray balances the hugeness of the canvas and the occasional broadness of his strokes with spare, scrupulous detail in the individual characterizations. He’s helped by the instantly iconic elders in his cast—Caan, in particular, is excellent, subtly registering the guilt and exhaustion of a lifetime’s cumulative compromise—and by the two young leads. Phoenix effectively downplays Willie’s tortured, confused ambition, and Wahlberg is boundlessly sympathetic in delineating Leo’s stoic despair.
The schematic narrative flirts with muffled, overwrought implausibility—scale is very much an end in itself. But Gray knows well enough to slip in a moment or two of perfectly judged awkwardness (Erica stiffly and abruptly resting her head on Frank’s shoulder after a weepy apology) and the odd unnerving bit of disorientation (when Leo is dispatched to a hospital ward on an execution mission, his terror is filtered through gauzy screens and sickly green light). The Yards is no less handsomely mounted than Little Odessa—veteran music-video cinematographer Harris Savides suffuses the interiors in a nostalgic burnished ochre that makes it easy to forget the film’s present-day setting. The tradition of American independent directors making movies that relate chiefly to other movies should not be encouraged, but there’s a difference here. Gray’s brand of film-buffery manifests itself, simply and irresistibly, as ardent, uncynical movie love.