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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001
Wrong side of the tracks
By KAORI SHOJI
"When a director isn't directing, he dies a little everyday," said director James Gray after the release of his amazing screen debut "Little Odessa." That was in 1995. Now, Gray is back with "The Yards." This is his second film in six years, which is a rather long time to be dying.
James Gray has a knack for two things: zeroing in on a rarely told story and assembling an extravagant cast to tell it. "Little Odessa" was set in the little-known title town of Russian immigrants near Queens (his hometown) and starred the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Tim Roth and Edward Furlong. This time with "The Yards," Gray takes us to a Queens subway company, of all places, and gathers another high-powered cast. How a 31-year-old director with just one film to his name manages such a feat is a mystery. No doubt this includes a nose for the kind of material that's doesn't smell of a Hollywood sell-out, but entertaining enough to sell. That pretty much describes what "The Yards" is all about.
Leo (Mark Wahlberg) did 16 months penal servitude for auto theft, and now he's back in Queens with long-suffering single mom Val (Ellen Burstyn). During his absence, things have changed: His beautiful cousin Erica (Charlize Theron) is dating his best friend Wille (Joaquin Phoenix). His aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway) has remarried subway company owner Frank (James Caan) and is now in a position to offer financial help to her sister Val -- who refuses out of pride.
Leo looks at the situation and decides he must get a paying job immediately and give his mom some happiness. So he goes to Frank, who tells him to get some training as a subway mechanic. That would take two years, and Leo doesn't want to wait that long. He then turns to Willie, who works for Frank as a "supply manager." This amounts to greasing the right palms so that Frank's company will outrank the others in getting orders. Everyone is in on the scam, from the Queens Borough president, Mydanick (Steve Lawrence), who demands hard cash, down to the guards at the subway yards who settle for tickets to Knicks games.
Leo doesn't want trouble, but he also thinks that life is too short to waste on mechanics training school. So he tags along after Willie and learns the ropes of bribery, making deals and occasional sabotage to damage rival companies. But one night at the Sunnyside Yards, a guard refuses to cooperate. Willie gets desperate and ends up stabbing the guard. Leo knocks out a cop and leaves him unconscious.
In the morning, all hell breaks loose as the police launch a full-scale search on the culprits. Mydanick panics and barks at Frank to do something. Willie tells Leo to kill off the cop, who is unconscious in the hospital. If he can't do it, then he must leave town forever. Leo runs off, leaving Willie to patch things up (i.e., blame everything on Leo). Frank is incensed and orders Willie to locate Leo and finish him off before a major scandal ruins their entire operation.
What drives "The Yards" is Gray's own knowledge and experience. The director's father was an accountant for a New York City subway operator, and Gray can clearly recall the day borough President Donald Maines committed suicide after his name was directly linked to subway corruption scandals. It was only after his death that New York subways gradually got cleaned up and became safer. Gray's research into the intricate and complicated network of scams is convincing and compelling -- all the more since he refrains from highlighting any of these scenes with splashy violence or wisecrack dialogue. The climactic scene at Sunnyside Yards invites both of these things and more, but Gray engineers the event like a documentary, giving it much more impact.
Gray's other forte is family. As in "Little Odessa," "The Yards" focuses on a son returning to an ailing mother and how the strength of their bonds help to battle the larger forces of the outside world. Val fiercely believes in her son, and Leo is so concerned for his mother he can't stay away. The relationship between the sisters, Val and Kitty, overrides Kitty's loyalty to her new husband, and Erica gives her cousin Leo the trust she withholds from her lover Willie. And when a crisis occurs, the whole family comes together and forms a tight, little circle that excludes outsiders. On seeing Gray's treatment of family, one only wishes he would die a lot less and make films more often.