Americans hold an unshakable fascination with gangster flicks. Mobmen combine family values and cutthroat living. Mafia scenarios allow individuals to grapple with big questions of love and betrayal, commitment and respect, greed and greenbacks—usually while wielding a baseball bat or personal firearm. Frontier lawlessness inherited from Westerns commingles with the immigrant and urban experience. When executed correctly, the resultant figures become (like their legendary real-world counterparts) larger than life. An implicit distrust of youth makes it hard for young filmmakers to be epic, although James Gray's The Yards takes a decent shot.
Legal conflicts and familial obligations have backed Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) into a corner. Just released from the slammer, Leo longs to come clean and spend time with his ailing mother in their Brooklyn home. Yet the family has its hands in some shady business. After scheming with his friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), Leo finds himself wanted by both the police and his Mafioso relatives, of whom his uncle (James Caan) is the head.
The Yards' strength lies in its actors. Equipped with a complex, multi-layered script, writer-director James Gray creates a taut, tense study in human conflict. Faye Dunaway and James Caan deliver experienced performances, and the younger generation (including an excellent Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron) plays off its older foils with accomplishment. It's hard to imagine another Godfather, so The Yards learns from the masters and puts its own spin on the subject matter. As good gangsters must, the characters rise above themselves, an ability that makes The Yards one to watch.