There's a sense of Greek tragedy at work in "The Yards," the tale of a prodigal son who returns to his family's environs, finds himself sucked into a vortex of crime and corruption, and demonstrates surprising moral mettle. In his quietly seductive second feature, director James Gray (of 1994's underappreciated "Little Odessa") also makes references to "The Godfather," "On the Waterfront" and the Sidney Lumet school of little-man-against-the-system drama.
Penned by the New York-born Gray and Long Islander Matt Reeves, the film tells the story of Leo (Mark Wahlberg), a blue-collar kid who returns to the borough of Queens after a 16-month stint in prison for auto theft. On the subway ride home, he's morose and lost in his thoughts. The burnished gold-and-brown tints of the cinematography add to the sense of displaced time. This could be the '90s, or it might be the '70s.
A party celebrating Leo's release is the first of several sequences that boast a careful mix of finely drawn performances: The ex-con's sickly mom, (Ellen Burstyn), relieved by her son's return, holds tightly -- and rather pitifully -- to prospects of a brighter future. His old pal Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), one of several buddies who apparently benefited from Leo's gutsy silence when questioned by the authorities, is eager to give his trusty friend a connection with Frank (James Caan), the head honcho of a subway-contracting company. (Writer/director Gray is himself the son of a subway contractor.) And the sparks between Leo and his sexy cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), lately Willie's girlfriend, seem to be more than platonic.
Frank -- who is married to Leo's upwardly mobile aunt (Faye Dunaway) -- suggests that his nephew train to be a machinist first and then return for a sure-thing job with the Electric Rail Corporation. But there's bigger money to be made in partnering with Willie, the company's smooth-talking, unofficial clean-up man. His specialties? Sabotaging competitors and making pay-offs to the government officials who have the power to assign city contracts.
It's only a matter of time before the well-intentioned Leo becomes soiled by the dirty business. A nasty encounter in the Sunnyside Yards results in damaged subway cars and a murder. A badly battered cop is likely to finger Leo as the chief suspect.
Wahlberg is probably more downbeat in the role than is called for, but he shines on several occasions. In one emotionally intense segment, he finds himself in a hospital, where he's been sent to carry out an execution. Leo seems torn apart by conflicting allegiances. Will he follow his conscience, or give in to the pressures of his associates?
Leo turns into a rat in a cage, running away from the police and fearing retribution from his co-workers -- including Frank, whose desperation and world-weariness is magnificently illuminated by Caan. The cycle of misery, however, ends on a note of noble solemnity. It's a familiar, rather conventional resolution, and just about the only element that blunts the impact of an otherwise gripping drama.