Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Yards (1999)

by on December 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Dec 15 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
*Pinewood Dialogue & book signing with director James Gray


On the occasion of the publication of Jordan Mintzer’s new book James Gray, the Gallically beloved director will appear onstage for a discussion following the screening of his second feature.


As Andrew Tracy remarks, “the marked hostility to Gray in the US ever since The Yards remains one of the most curious cases of critical perversity in a field littered with them.” Released in that weird late-90s black hole, where reviews seem to have vanished from the internet archives, The Yards apparently got props from Manohla Dargis and Michael Atkinson, among others. But we’ve got some other positive takes after the jump.


Gray on his storyboarding process:


 Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:

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 Yardsis 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 WaterfrontRocco and His Brothers.


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 Yardsis 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.



Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

A rare and often quite good try at making a thriller with real people and believable contemporary backgrounds, with a story about a flawed but sympathetic young guy (Mark Wahlberg) caught in a network of conflicting loyalties. Wahlberg’s Leo Handler is pulled one way by his crazy friend, Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix); another by his careful uncle and patron, Frank Olchin (James Caan); yet another by his more idealistic mother, Val (Ellen Burstyn). The result: a whirlpool of violence and mischance, ending in a dark reckoning with fate and honor. If “The Yards” misses its highest aspiration, it still shows good reach. It’s a dense, novelistic look at the kind of place and story too often caricatured and stripped down in movies — and however disappointing it might be in some respects (too pat and contrived, too much cliched uplift at the end), it’s a good try at a classic American movie genre. It’s a contender — and it’s not strictly business.


Stephen Hunter for the Washington Post:

Talk about your true grit – “The Yards” is so gritty you can pick cinders out of your teeth as you watch it. That sulfurous smell: Maybe it’s in your imagination, but it seems to be wafting out of the screen. The blinking of your scratchy eyes: not tears, not at all, but from the dust in the air. The movie is a series of notes from the underground – you know, the trains that rattle along in the great tunnels beneath New York City, riding a current of electricity as they haul the millions from the Bronx (up) to the Battery (down). The bureaucracy that services these vehicles, the film points out, is hopelessly corrupt in the New York way, and the story follows a young man’s education in this rotten world. Anybody remember “On the Waterfront”? This one is “On the E Train,” and it’s a contender.


Oddly, the crime drama is less compelling than the family drama. Gray imagines each relationship to the fullest: a sister who loves her sister, loves her daughter, loves her second husband, but must choose among them. A young man who loves his mother, his cousin, his friend, his uncle, but must also choose among them. Each of these characters is forced to make the hardest choices imaginable, and that’s what makes “The Yards” a haunting experience.



Jeremy Arnold interviews Gray for MovieMaker:

MM: There are a lot of long takes in the film, specifically, the hospital scene where Mark Wahlberg’s character walks slowly down the hall and into the cop’s room.

JG: That’s my favorite scene. It’s the slowest scene in the world! There’s one shot that’s a really slow zoom, which lasts for like 50 seconds! Can you imagine 30 takes of that? [laughs]


MM: How do you construct a sequence like that-the writing, the storyboarding, etc.?

JG: The storyboards turned out to be useless because once I got to the location, it was completely different than what I had imagined. So I stole a lot from a scene in The Conformist, where Jean-Louis Trintignant is being chased through the sheets by the chauffeur. For some reason that stuck in my head and I thought, “Well, OK, Wahlberg silhouetted against these sheets. I’ll have an almost mythic quality to the sequence.” I remember thinking the audience would be able to maintain interest even if it’s the slowest scene of all time. I purposefully directed it with such a slow pace.


MM: Is that why it’s your favorite scene?

JG: I love the way it looks-that putrid, fluorescent green. I love the way Wahlberg puts on that mask, which was his idea, because it makes him look so creepy and weird. I love that shot of his eye. I don’t know. There are times where you come to the set and the scene doesn’t work at all, and you have to fight like crazy. On other days you come onto the set and you say, “Oh, I know how to shoot this.” Maybe it’s crap ultimately, but it all seems to come together for you. This was one of those times.



Geoffrey Mcnab for Sight & Sound:

Self-consciously elegiac, The Yards is a slow-burning but meticulously crafted family melodrama posing as a thriller. Writer-director James Gray sets his story in Queens, New York, but neither the location nor the plot – which touches on political corruption and industrial sabotage – is the mainspring here. Gray is far more preoccupied with the relationships between the various family members at the heart of his film than with his ostensible subject matter – the battle to control New York’s subway.


Where the film does register is as a study of a family torn apart by betrayal and bad faith. With few shoot-outs or kinetic action scenes, The Yards relies on the subtlety and intensity of the performances, most of which are excellent. Wahlberg is both feisty and vulnerable as the baffled ex-con; the saturnine-looking Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Willie, has a rare knack of making villainous characters seem sympathetic; Caan excels as the unscrupulous, thick-skinned fixer who pretends to be a dedicated family man but is willing to sacrifice a close relative for the sake of his business. If Gray risks going down a blind tunnel by paying so much attention to subway politics, he gets away with it through sheer dint of craftsmanship. Ultimately, The Yards is well enough acted and scripted to bear comparison with the character-driven films of the 70s it strives to emulate.



Andrew Lewis Conn for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2000):

Gray has talent. (His ability to attract a cast the caliber of Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Ellen Burstyn, James Caan, and Faye Dunaway speaks well of him.) There’s a stillness, a stateliness, at the core of his work that’s unique for such a young filmmaker, especially one who favors this kind of material. And his influences are refreshingly his own: watching The Yards, and his previous picture, the Brighton Beach Russian gangster film, Little Odessa, you feel like applauding him for not copping moves from the Scorsese-Tarantino handbook. Here is a new director confidently in control of his own style. His new film is filled with local color, good performances, and tightly wound setpieces. A Queens native, Gray obviously knows and loves New York, and shows us parts of the city we’ve never seen before. One of the most exciting things a novelist or filmmaker can do is thrust you into a subculture you barely knew existed and anatomize its innards. So long as Gray stays in the boardrooms and trainyards – so long as we get a sense we’re being fed the inside dope – the picture is thrilling.

If Gray employs his cast expertly, he’s also an elegant, even minimalist, stylist. Instead of the rock-and-roll we might expect, Gray decks the soundtrack with bells and strings. And if Gray doesn’t feel compelled to swing the camera around like most of his hyperactive contemporaries, he has a painters eye for light and dark. The widescreen compositions in this movie really pop.



Joseph Jon Lanthier for Slant:

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.


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.)


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.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

There is a sad, tender quality in “The Yards” I couldn’t put my finger on, until I learned that the director’s father inspired one of the characters. It’s ambiguity that makes the film interesting. Most crime movies have a simplistic good vs. evil moral structure. When “The Godfather” comes along, with its shades of morality within a shifting situation, it exposes most mob pictures as fairy tales. “The Yards” resembles “The Godfather” in the way it goes inside the structure of corruption, and shows how judges and elected officials work at arms’ length with people they know are breaking the law. But it also resembles “Mean Streets,” the film about two childhood friends who get in over their heads


“The Yards” is not exhilarating like some crime movies, or vibrant with energy like others. It exists in a morose middle ground, chosen by Gray, deliberately or not, because this is how his own memories feel. When indictments come down in political scandals, the defendants often say they were only trying to operate within the system. So they were. Their other choice was to find a new line of work. The system endures. If you don’t take the payoff, someone else will. Fairly nice people can live in this shadowland. Sometimes things go wrong.


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