All but ignored upon its initial release in 2000, The Yards, director James Gray's follow-up to his acclaimed 1994 debut Little Odessa, is a grim morality tale that features a trio of powerful performances from Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Oscar winner Charlize Theron. Culled from Gray's personal experiences, The Yards has an authentic feel and intriguing story that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Wahlberg stars as Leo Handler, a wrongly imprisoned man newly freed after five years spent in jail, whose aunt has married Frank Olchin (James Caan), one of New York City's biggest subway repair contractors. Based in Queens, Frank is up to his neck in graft and corruption, letting Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix), Leo's best friend, do a lot of the dirty work for him – including sneaking into the 'yards late at night to vandalize his competitors' work. When Willie brings Leo along on a job one night and suddenly the parolee finds himself on the run, Leo's family – ailing mother Val (Ellen Burstyn), cousin Erica (Theron), aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway) and Frank – must decide whether to pull together and help Leo or abandon him to save their own skins.
Gray certainly assembled one hell of a cast to tell his shades-of-gray morality tale: Caan, Dunaway, Burstyn, Theron, Phoenix and Wahlberg make for an impressive line-up and one that rarely hits a false note. Phoenix is typically incendiary, while Theron underplays her role as the helpless cousin; Caan anchors the film as the no-nonsense Frank while Wahlberg initially seems to be in a different film, comes through by the climax. A very moody, somber work that recalls The Godfather and other morally ambiguous films of the Seventies, The Yards is a movie that feels unstuck in time – were it not for the modern cars and other conveniences, it could very easily be set 10 or 20 years ago. That said, Gray does have a few contrivances too many in his narrative to make this film a truly minor masterpiece; coincidence and happenstance tend to weigh heavily upon the story, making the resolution lack the dramatic punch it needs.
This version, as mentioned in the commentary tracks, is the alternate cut of the film, screened for test audiences but then subsequently re-edited and which Gray says is actually a couple minutes shorter than the theatrical release. As an "exclusive unrated" cut goes, there's very little here that's gratuitous or shocking – the bursts of violence are infrequent and fairly bloodless and the language isn't anything abhorrent. Billing this as an "exclusive unrated director's cut" might seem slightly misleading to those expecting graphic footage to be reinstated, but this edition does represent the film as Gray intended.
The Yards is presented with a fairly sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that handles the numerous low-lit scenes well. Veteran Gus Van Sant cinematographer Harris Savides' grimy, burnished images look crisp; there are no noticeable defects and overall, it's a very clean image.
On the sonic end, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo are on hand, with the 5.1 soundtrack doing a fantastic job of providing eerie ambiance in the railyards, as well as during the family parties – there's appropriate kick when necessary and Howard Shore's overwrought score doesn't intrude upon the occasionally mumbled dialogue.
This is the second DVD incarnation of The Yards – all of the original disc's bonus features (Gray's solo commentary, the making-of featurette, original concept art and the film's theatrical trailer) have been ported over and it's heartening to see that Miramax outfitted this new DVD with even more supplemental material: in addition to Gray's 2001 solo commentary is one with Gray and director Steven Soderbergh; the solo track is quiet, informative and dense while the tandem track is every bit as compelling and informative as Soderbergh's other yack-track cameos (Catch-22 and Point Blank spring to mind), despite Gray's annoying tendency to impersonate other people's voices.
Also on board (as previously mentioned) is the 12 minute, full-screen making-of featurette and the film's theatrical trailer, in addition to a 30 minute roundtable discussion with Theron, Wahlberg, Caan and Gray, filmed specifically for this DVD release; the 12 minute featurette "Visualizing 'The Yards'" and eight deleted scenes (playable separately or all together) with optional commentary by Gray. Trailers for The Great Raid, Secuestro Express, The Brothers Grimm and Underclassman are also included.
The Yards is a gritty, authentic morality tale that was sadly overlooked upon first release – featuring a handful of now bona fide Hollywood stars, co-writer/director James Gray's sophomore film is an engaging piece of filmmaking that despite a few contrivances, will appeal to fans of somber, moody dramas. Recommended.