A film that at least tries to work on several different levels, The Yards is an intriguing if not necessarily exciting crime thriller about, well, a lot of things. It’s about people who get in over their heads. It’s about corruption in just about every facet of life. It’s about family, it’s about betrayal, and it’s about how tough it is for a film that plays for two hours to stretch its story’s credibility. Some of the events in The Yards are so silly that they undermine its more realistic and important moments and insights.
Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is our lead, having recently finished a 16-month prison sentence for … something that involved taking the fall for his gang of friends. It’s ultimately inconsequential; the point is made that he’s a criminal and now he has to find work, make good with his demons, and support his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn). His best friend, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), suggest that he works for a railway car repair company, which is owned by Frank (James Caan), the stepfather of Willie’s girlfriend, Erica (Charlize Theron) — who is Leo’s cousin. The family ties are strong.
Early in the film, we learn how deep the corruption lies in this system. Willie’s job is to secure contracts so that the repair company can keep getting business. To do this, bribes, sabotage, and even murders aren’t considered to be “over the line.” On one such sabotage job, something goes wrong, Leo is left as the only suspect, and he’s now on the run not just from the police, but from the rest of the company, as he could be traced back to it, which would essentially end any support it would get from other companies.
From here, the characters are left to make some tough moral decisions. Do Willie and Frank find and “silence” Leo, even though he’s family, to save their own skins? Does Leo turn himself in to save his family? Does everyone hold hands, work together, and try to solve the corrupt system in which they’re working? That last one is something I’d like to see. Imagine all these tough characters holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”
These characters are not all good or all bad. Most of them are morally complex. Many are generally good people working within corruption. If they don’t go with that flow, they won’t last long; they can and will be replaced by another willing participant. This allows for moral questions to be raised by the film, and for the filmmakers to explore their implications and the human condition. The Yards is moderately effective at this task, and if that’s the reason you’re watching it, you probably won’t be disappointed.
If you’re looking for a consistently thrilling or even entertaining experience, you should probably look to another movie. The Yards isn’t exactly dull, but as a thriller it’s very low-key — that’s not, in and of itself, a bad thing, mind, but you should know what you’re getting into before it begins. It’s not going to surprise you with twists and turns, and it’s not going to constantly attempt to generate suspense. It’s more interested in its characters and what it has to say about them and people as a whole.
Its points are slightly undone by its plot’s lack of credibility. As things start to get crazier, they begin to lose any semblance of reality. It becomes more fantasy than it wants to and it winds up being tough to take seriously. How can we take the threat of police or the gangsters seriously when Leo seems to have no trouble whatsoever sneaking back into his home — on more than one occasion — to see his mother and cousin?
The Yards also takes forever to end, and that’s not even a criticism of its nearly two-hour running time. It felt as if there were at least three points at which the movie could have finished, but it kept going so that we could neatly wrap up everything. For a film as morally complex as this one, it sure felt the need to make sure everything worked out perfectly in the end. Or, at least, all of the plot threads were tied up in a nice bow. I’m not always for ambiguity but thematically I think it would have fit this time around.
There are a lot of good actors in this movie, and they give strong performances. As the lead, and a man trying to walk the right path despite the circumstances surrounding him, Mark Wahlberg makes the character work. Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron round out the rest of the “younger” cast, and both are fine, if unremarkable. Filling in mostly background roles are veterans like James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway. Only Caan makes an impression, but the other two are steady and warming presences.
The Yards is either a moderately effective morality tale that happens to be set within a crime thriller plot, or a low-key, kind of dull, crime thriller that has more insight into the human condition than you’d expect from this kind of thing, even though it’s not particularly entertaining. It all depends on what you’re looking for and why you chose to watch this particular movie. If you want the former, it’ll be worth seeing. If you’re hoping for the latter, you’ll want to look elsewhere.