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The Yards (2000)

September 2nd, 2007 · 3 Comments

“Miramax is brilliant at publicizing its successes, but it’s even more brilliant at burying its failures,” said Dennis Rice, their former president of marketing. Miramax Films was notorious for test screening its movies – often in malls in New Jersey – and barely releasing the ones that scored poorly. Some went straight to video, even those with major stars. Here’s a look at some of the studio’s B-sides, bombs and greatest misses.

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Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) returns to Queens after serving a sixteen month prison sentence for auto theft. Guests at his welcome home party include his buddy Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn), his aunt (Faye Dunaway) and his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), who has become Willi’es girlfriend, in spite of a history she once had with Leo.

Leo visits his uncle Frank (James Caan), owner of a manufacturing company that supplies the New York subway. Leo is under the impression that Frank is a powerful figure in the borough and can help him, but his uncle suggests that his nephew consider vocational school. Instead, Leo starts working with Willie, who Frank entrusts with keeping the various city officials who award subway contracts happy with cash or Knicks tickets.

Willie is also in charge of a crew who routinely go to the railyards to wreck the equipment of the competition. Leo comes along as a lookout, but things get out of hand; Willie kills a night watchman, and Leo puts a cop in the hospital. Not sure Leo can be trusted to keep quiet if he’s arrested, Willie reluctantly notifies him that he has to take care of the cop.

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Production history 
James Gray was a graduate of USC Film School. His debut feature – a deliberately paced crime drama starring Tim Roth called Little Odessa – had been well received in 1994. Gray’s father worked for a company that supplied New York subways, and for his sophomore effort, Gray was writing a script incorporating stories he’d heard, along with tales of corruption in the city during the ’80s.

Gray’s script was close to 200 pages long. Harvey Weinstein – co-chairman of Miramax Films with his brother Bob – demanded that Gray get it into focus. He was allowed to bring in a classmate from USC named Matt Reeves to rewrite it. The strength of their finished product attracted Mark Wahlberg, who had just become a star, and Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron, who were on the verge of becoming stars.

With a budget of $17.7 million, The Yards went before the cameras in the summer of 1998. Gray delivered his cut of the picture in September. Put before a test audience, it did not score well. Weinstein insisted on an ending that was more upbeat, which Gray conceded to and shot over three days in May 1999. Miramax was still not pleased with the response the film was getting, and buried it for another year in post-production.

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Gray received an invitation to screen The Yards at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000. Reaction was mixed. Some critics praised the artistry of the film’s look, while many panned its clichéd plot. It was finally released in October 2000 – without TV commercials – in only 150 theaters. It disappeared with less than $1 million at the U.S. box office.

The Yards landed on a few top ten critics lists that year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if after further reflection, it ends up on some lists of the best films of the decade. The story is old hat, but absolutely nothing about the way Gray frames that story is. He favors a quiet, elegant ambiance, and cast actors who give some of the greatest performances of their careers.

With director of photography Harris Savides, Gray bathes the film in painterly melancholy. It’s like Michael Mann low budget; a crime film, but one replacing macho intensity with seductive beauty. Rooms are as dim as any since Gordon Willis lit The Godfather. Characters whisper, hold back their emotions. There’s no more joy than you’d encounter at a funeral wake, but Gray isn’t making a fun B-movie here. This is an A-film with style and class.

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Mark Wahlberg’s role is one he was born to play – a working class kid brooding with menace and resentment – and he gives a career performance. Joaquin Phoenix is as charismatic as Wahlberg is restrained, demonstrating brilliant emotional range. Theron shows equal if not greater depth. She has a scene with James Caan where she swallows her pride and begs her stepfather to help Wahlberg that blew me away in how soulful she plays it.

The film flawlessly cast, pairing two generations of terrific actors. Caan and Dunaway are sublime in this, expressing so much with a bare minimum of dialogue, while Ellen Burstyn’s chemistry with Wahlberg is something special. I cannot praise the performances in this film enough. Costume designer Michael Clancy and art director Judy Rhee deserve a lot of credit. This cast looks working class.

Composer Howard Shore adapted “Saturn” from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite, but the film uses little music and even less dialogue, instead utilizing terrific sound design to set a vivid mood among the rustic railyards. The story is as old as the hills; Gray had to know this would never appeal to a mass audience. I didn’t exactly go bananas for The Yards in 2000, but I’m bananas about it now, and strongly recommend it.

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“The film reminds one of Edward Hopper’s paintings, especially his city scenes … So, it’s kind of a letdown that what happens in the interim is somewhat familiar,” writes Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies. He gives it 3 out of 5 goats.

Neil Young at Jigsaw Lounge says, “In retrospect it’s all a little ‘so what-ish’, a film so concerned with being serious and mature and important it ends up weighing itself down like one of its own subway cars.”

“While writer/director James Gray tells the story with an impressive urban palate, set in and around the Queens subway car yards, it never really catches fire,” writes Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Mother/son relationship · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jen // Sep 3, 2007 at 7:47 am

    Interesting… I’d never even really heard of this film. I’ll have to check it out (add to Netflix queue: check!).

  • 2 Jeremy // Sep 4, 2007 at 4:50 am

    Great review Joe. I love this film and count it among the best of the decade. I was lucky enough to see it in its initial run and was blown away that it didn’t get more attention. It reminded me of something Coppola would have shot had he come of age in the nineties.

    I couldn’t agree more with the things you have said here. Specifically the stuff about the cast. Wahlberg is my favorite modern American actor and this is one of his great roles. Phoenix is always incredible, this guy should play Elvis, and I have been a major supporter of Theron since her earliest work in the nineties. “The Yards” was one of the first obvious signs that she was clearly one of the best actors of her generation…

    Anyway, fantastic review. I gave a heads up to people about it at Moon In The Gutter and I hope to one day look at the film there as well…

  • 3 Katie Monkman // Oct 27, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    This is a fucking awesome movie ..

    Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix are fucking great together. i like how this one is like the opposite of We Own The Night .. It’s fucking awesome.
    Not to mention they are both freakin sexy.

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