Although set in the present day, the two films written and directed by 31-year-old James Gray have a distinctly old-fashioned, New World feel, their characters settled but still seeming to define themselves as immigrant hopefuls. These days, one is grateful for any American movie about the working class that isn't a satiric mockumentary. Yet Gray's Little Odessa and The Yards convey a detailed familiarity with the last ungentrified reaches of the outer boroughs--the former involving petty gangsterism in the Russian-Jewish area of Brighton Beach, and the latter dealing with New York commuter-rail corruption among a tribe of Queens-based palm-greasers. Naysayers could call Gray's focus on peeling paint and vacant lots merely a convenient means to further his obsessive imitation of Seventies crime dramas. Indeed, in The Yards, the strange frequency of neighborhood power outages suits the director's love of dark cinematography rather too well.
But it's clear that what interests this filmmaker more than anything is the impact of great expectations upon familial relationships: Both Little Odessa and The Yards begin with grown men coming home in search of parental approval only to find that their impatient methods of gaining it stand to destroy their clans from within. The new film's returning son is Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), an earnest meathead who, just sprung from jail, is eager to gain respectable employment with his aunt's heavily connected husband Frank (James Caan), a train-maintenance magnate. (Our hero's workmanlike surname--Handler--acts as a glaring signpost of his fated subservience.) Clearly not fond of his nephew, Frank offers him a machinist's two-year training program, but Leo would rather tag along with his boyhood buddy Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), a slick opportunist who does the boss's dirty work while courting Leo's beloved and beautiful cousin Erica (Charlize Theron). Poor Mom (Ellen Burstyn) is bound to be disappointed.
Sure enough, a botched bribe in the train yards turns violent and sends the paroled Leo scrambling back to the outskirts of the family. Darkness falls on the film and then some: At one point, the screen goes so black that the only thing you can see is the glint in Caan's left eye. Yet more striking is the manner in which the gnarled branches of the family tree become more clear amid the shady goings-on. With their makeshift perms, oversized eyeglasses, and weary demeanors, Leo's mother and aunt (Faye Dunaway) would seem nearly identical except that the latter has remarried well--a fact that only increases the black sheep's hunger to make good. Similarly, Phoenix's part-Hispanic bad-boy struggles to stay tight with the wealthier side of the family, even as a rival hermano insists that he'll "never be as white as they are."
The Yards has been compared to Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers--and The Godfather and On the Waterfront and The Public Enemy, all for good reason. But while watching Gray's film, I kept thinking of the original Kiss of Death (1947), which likewise features gritty location shooting, a nonchalant awareness of backroom justice, and a deliberately slow, even lethargic pace that makes the ex-con's predicament seem even more stereotypical--and therefore more tragic. Like Kiss of Death's Nick Bianco, Leo Handler eventually "squeals," in gangster-movie parlance, yet the sound that truly betrays the protagonist's roots is the naive whimper he issues to his parole officer: "I just wanna become a productive person--you know, in society." Just as Little Odessa lent an unironic gravity to the hit-man drama at the height of Tarantino-mania, The Yards appears greater than the sum of its old sources, in part because its hero wouldn't know a cliché if it pressed two Knicks tickets in his hand and told him there's more where those came from.