With stars like Mark Wahlberg, James Caan, Joachin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway, the new crime movie, "The Yards" certainly has a high octane cast.
Unfortunately, this deliberately paced (to put it politely) drama, rarely kicks into high gear.
Combine the elephantine pace with a somber score, and a nearly two hour running time; and some moviegoers might be tempted to call this movie "The LONGEST Yards."
Wahlberg plays Leo Handler, a young man just released from prison after doing a couple of years for car theft. He returns to his mother's apartment (Burstyn) to find a party thrown by his best friend, Willie (Phoenix), and who is also the boyfriend of his cousin, Erica, (Theron) who seems to only have eyes for Leo.
Leo goes to apply fpr a job with Frank, (Caan)his widowed aunt's (Dunaway) new husband. Frank owns a company that fixes everything that has to do with New York City subway cars. Leo wants to work with Willie, whose job with Frank has him flashing a fat bankroll, but Frank steers Leo toward mechanic school to earn an honest trade.
Putting that offer on hold, Leo becomes Willie's unofficial trainee, and finds himself enmeshed in a corruption ring that stretches from the Borough President (Steve Lawrence) to yard foremen who turn their backs while Willie's crew damages subway cars to create more work.
On one of these errands, Willie kills a foreman who has gone to "work" for an aggressive minority contractor who wants his fair share of the graft. Getting away, Leo assaults a cop, and becomes the prime suspect in both crimes.
Willie, afraid of both sides of the law, lets everyone think that Leo did the murder, and soon Leo is hunted by both the bad guys and the cops. Only his cousin and his ailing mother believe in his innocence, while Willie and Frank agonize over the fact that Leo's death is now the only thing that can put them in the clear.
"The Yards" has a lot going for it. The cast is excellent, (particularly Caan, who has resurfaced of late as a fine character actor) and each actor has a chance to shine in a pivotal moment with a multifaceted character who has an intricate relationship with the others. Everyone in this movie is under considerable pressure from those around them. These are not the usual suspects in crime drama-- the corrupt crime boss who revels in his evil ways, or the misunderstood guy who is drawn into a life of crime against his will-- ala "Kiss of Death."
Frank considers himself a respectable businessman who is forced by the competition to engage in his corrupt practices. There is some great dialogue by writer/director James Gray as Frank, Willie, and other associates constantly talk around their crimes and plans to do in Leo with phrases like "we're very concerned," "take care of it," and "get things under control."
The fact that the characters are realistically drawn, means that the threat of another killing has real force, and there are some nearly unbearable moments of tension in several confrontations.
On the other hand, there isn't really anyone to like. Erica is a tragic figure, but with a rather distasteful secret and a willing blind eye-- a fault she shares with her mother and aunt. Leo gets into this trouble because he is too dumb and lazy to take the straight job Frank insists on offering him.
Director James Gray shoots everything in muted colors, and seems to have lit his sets with lanterns. This is the gloomiest cinematography since "7." Not only do you have to peer to see anything, but you must strain to hear, as well. These people talk in more hushed tones than you'd find at a TV golf announcer convention.