Tension in film noir is often maintained by characters who struggle, and then founder, in the face of atmospheric pressures (drugs, women, debt, greed, and grudges, to name a few), but the damned are rarely as in touch with their own feebleness as they are in James Gray’s sophomore effort, The Yards. A sullen portrait of betrayal that dances between municipal and familial contexts, The Yards is noir at its most elemental, if not quintessential. There’s a prodigal son, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), returning to New York from an undeserved stint in prison; a sick mother (Ellen Burstyn); a potentially corrupt city-transit mogul uncle, Frank (James Caan); and a conspicuously affluent childhood friend, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who doles out brotherly bear hugs while his eyes gleam with unsettling, vulpine power. In the opening scene, a citywide blackout floods the barely middle-class apartment where Leo’s homecoming party is being held. When he briefly speaks to Willie about a potential employment opportunity, the two are surrounded by the flickering, primitive yellows of candlelight.
To say that Harris Savides’s cinematography uses literal darkness as a metaphor for moral ambiguity in scenes like the ones described above feels too glib and archetypal an analysis. (Notably, the lights in the apartment first die when Leo is chatting with his troubled cousin, Erica, played by Charlize Theron, about her romantic relationship with Willie.) Expressionistic shadow has always been a slippery noir symbol, both a sanctuary for the accused and a distorter of emotions—and, indeed, when Willie and Leo carry out Frank’s plans to sabotage trains serviced by competing contractors in the titular subway rail yard, things go awry in the manner of a cosmic riddle where a man suffocates on his own cloak. But the somewhat obvious lighting cues, which also ape Gordon Willis’s metallic, orange flesh and sinisterly black eye sockets, underscore how the characters feel oppressed by rather than progenitors of ethical dubiousness. The cheating and the violence are nearly always in retaliation against a failed protectorate. (Willie stabs a man who refuses to be paid to look the other way, and another set piece involves a comatose police officer whose irascibility Leo must silence for good.) The flashy darkness isn’t so much representative of the characters’ wavering values as it is an aesthetic appropriation of their hidden timidity.
As in Gray’s later success, Two Lovers, the camera in The Yards knows how to pity the activity it captures without sentimentalizing it; when Willie and Leo come to blows toward the end of the film’s second act, the angles remain patiently wide, as though the scuffle is being watched from across the street by a head-shaking spectator. Frank comes on like a puppetmaster of a mob boss, but when the situation demands immediate ruthlessness against his recently paroled nephew, we’re invited to stare into his sweatily crinkled, twitching forehead. (Caan inhabits with atypically sensitivity the burden of a man who might be for the first time in his life unable to prioritize blood and money.)
Ultimately, the visuals may be too responsible for the resonance; Wahlberg and Theron are ciphers who do little more than recite their urban patter. But Gray approaches the vaguely ethnic universe he’s limned with genuinely compassionate curiosity, even if he hasn’t fleshed it out enough to consistently provoke ours. (The film’s most precious moment might be a perfunctory conversation about Walbaum’s between Burstyn and Faye Dunaway’s aging sisters.)
Only Willie seems truly a product and denizen of Gray’s bleak if shiny milieu; his mercurial animus splendidly dwarfs the anticlimactic court drama at the film’s end. A post-Brando über-brute par excellence, Phoenix excels at being swept away by his own sensuality, even as he excruciatingly knows that his aggression won’t do him any good. In a subtly heated confrontation with Erica in the third act, we oddly sympathize more with him—with what the tragedy requires of him—than we do with his victim. His cheeks are tense, his eyes are pained, and he speaks softly and full of fury misdirected from his own blown fuses. He embodies, ultimately, the tortured confusion that allows the The Yards’s fatalism to transcend its uneven storytelling. He’s just as shocked as we are by what he does when the lights go out.
As the success of The Yards from person to person rests nearly entirely on how convincing he or she finds James Gray's aesthetic, this 1080p transfer is welcome even if it leaves one wanting more. The dramatic set pieces look the best: The scene at the railyard itself is a curio cabinet of inky blacks, sickly greens, and hot white sparks. Oddly, in other places the contrast appears much milkier, with some film grain distracting from the power of the image, and as the bulk of the movie occurs in dim light this becomes a terminal issue. The sound is clear, if unbalanced: You'll be reaching for your remote when whispers jump to bellows. [Note: It was brought to my attention shortly after writing this review that all of Echo Bridge's current Miramax Blu-ray releases may have been cropped or stretched to 1.78:1 widescreen and potentially even upconverted from a 480p master. The former in the case of The Yards is unfortunately true (IMDB lists the original aspect ratio at 2.35:1) and the latter, considering the visual issues I noted, would hardly be surprising.]
Goose eggs! It's not even the director's cut!
A modest Blu-ray presentation of James Gray's uniquely sensitive drama that fittingly appears to have been sabotaged by the competition.