TBT: The Yards (James Gray, 2000)

Indicative of Gray’s future as an apt purveyor of involving, character-driven fare, The Yards is subjectively unique if eventually flaccid as it peaks well before its end. Focusing on recently sprung Leo (Mark Wahlberg) as his undereducated ex-convict status remains a serious obstacle, the young man promptly solicits his uncle Frank (James Caan) for a job opportunity in the NYC subway biz. Uninterested in the toil coinciding with honest work, Leo instead opts for a spot among best friend Willie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) lackeys, all of whom work to criminally sabotage their primary business rival, that is until one fateful night turns things from simply felonious to wildly tragic.

Among its noticeable strengths, The Yards is above all else a film with palpable humanistic heft despite unavoidably succumbing to genre-centric trappings. Even still, the film earns points for exploring deep-seated corruption in a niche industry, more specifically one that’s rarely if ever been tackled within the cinematic medium. Gray and Reeves’ script also oozes sophistication as relative narrative substance is deftly implemented, most of which competently engages as it all tries desperately to combat familiarity.

As it all remains appealingly and appropriately bleak – especially given the fallout of Phoenix’s Willie’s actions – the proceedings seem to lack a sense of sustained urgency. Despite the core characters noticeably struggling to either cover up or expose someone or something, the conflict and the individuals themselves are a bit too cookie cutter in the grand scheme of things. Is this unavoidable given the film’s aim and core concept? Absolutely, therefore considering this flaw to be a forgivable cross to bear is the fairest means of criticizing it.

In the realm of especially humanistic true crime efforts, The Yards is just compelling enough to warrant a view, at least from Gray’s admirers. At the risk of sounding tangential, he lives to produce fare like this – familiarly subjective if astute in other aspects – and he’ll continue to be for as long as his body of work remains this appealingly assured. It substitutes a fairly unique setting for what we’re used to and the developed characters are worth caring for despite their transparent motives, but to be frank, it’s shame that it all falls victim to an alternately hopeful and hokey conclusion, not to mention preceding trope-heavy elements.

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