I have an inexplicable soft place in my heart for Marky Mark who has famously overcome stints in prison, the Funky Bunch, Calvin Klein underwear, and his own screwed-up head. Most of the time, I feel that my affection has been rewarded. He’s made some very good movies (Boogie Nights and Three Kings) and performed very well in others (The Basketball Diaries, The Corruptor, The Perfect Storm). Granted, he’s not an actor of tremendous range, and I realize that he does tend to play the same character that emotionally damaged young tough repeatedly. But he makes this character complicated, a little goofy, and repeatedly watchable. In fact, one of my favorite versions of this character appears in Fear, where he plays an emotionally damaged young tough who terrorizes his perfect blond girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), her sorta-sexy, sorta-goody-goody stepmother (Amy Brenneman), and her unbearably sanctimonious father (William Petersen), all with a desperation that made him Marky Mark, the punky terrorist seem almost sympathetic.
In his new movie, James Gray’s The Yards, Mark Wahlberg again plays an emotionally damaged young tough, but this time his entire environment is orchestrated to reflect that character, dark, sad, and heavy with non-options; Gray says that he had in mind an operatic weightiness (Puccini and other early 20th century artists in particular, working in the opera verisimo tradition). This tone is immediately established during the credits, when the camera travels through such deep darkness a train tunnel that the lights flying by look almost like stars; the mundane experience and the heroic ambition juxtaposed. When you first see Wahlberg’s Leo Handler, he’s survived the most terrible mundane experience, 18 months in prison for grand theft auto. And now he’s on the train headed home, soon arriving at his mother Val’s (Ellen Burstyn) apartment in Queens, where she’s arranged a Welcome Home Party for her dear boy. Leo looks out of place, subtly on edge, not quite knowing how to behave among these people used to comfort and deciding on their own what to eat for dinner. Within minutes, it’s clear through some cryptic boy-bonding rituals, grunting and thumping backs and such that Leo’s time in prison was the result of his taking the rap for trouble that involved other fellows, and that they’re grateful to him for being a standup guy. But now he’s got to deal with having a record and not being able to get work so easily, which means that despite his good intentions, Leo’s headed deep into an old-school moral quandary.
The party scene is one of the grimmest I’ve seen in a movie: the lighting is gloomy, the characters look vaguely uncomfortable in their own skins, and the space around them is small and dreary, like they’re living inside an experiment in light deprivation. Through all this, the sole metaphorical light is Leo’s obvious affection for his Ma and his visible pain at having caused her pain. “He’s a good kid,” she says, but you can tell that he feels like a bad one. Val displays that kind of stoic posture and barely stifled frailty that mothers in old Jimmy Cagney movies have, and you know right off the bat that she’s probably not long for this world, and worse, that her illness and/or death will bring lasting agony for her only-wanna-do-right son.
Leo isn’t even through the door when he’s greeted by his parole officer, who takes him aside for a chat about his plans. Leo mumbles, as if he believes it, “I just wanna become a productive person again, you know, in society.” Right. The PO leaves, and you meet this society into which Leo’s dumped, that is, his “friends” and the complicated interrelationships that make up his family. His best friend since childhood is Willie Guttierrez (Joachin Phoenix), a slightly too-smooth character who flashes lots of cash seems that while Leo’s been away Willie’s found a gig working for Leo’s uncle by marriage, Frank (Jimmy Caan, who, after Bottle Rocket, The Way of the Gun, and this film, is established as the go-to guy for poignantly crotchety, aging thugs). Frank’s business grants the film its title: his company manufactures subway train parts, and so there’s call for periodic trips to the train yards. Willie and his crew of scufflers make these trips at night, when they ruin the train parts made by a Latino-owned competing company (the competition is acute, since the city is legally bound to give 10% of its business to a minority-owned company). Willie ensures that Frank wins the contracts by sabotaging the other company’s machinery and by paying off the men who make the decisions (including a Borough President played with perfect scumminess by Steve Lawrence), most often with tickets to sporting events, fine food and jewelry, and wads of money.
Though Leo knows that he can’t get involved with illegal shenanigans, Willie assures him that he’ll look after him (“I won’t let you get into trouble”), but in making this promise, he’s got to ignore his own shaky position in the organization and city politics more generally, based on his own non-whiteness. This makes Willie a more complex, even intriguing, character than his thuggish behaviors suggest: repeatedly, you see one of the competing company’s head guys reminding him that he’ll never really be part of the club he wants so badly to join. (This layering of motive makes it that much more tragic that Willie descends quickly and violently into a doozy of a grand finale, which is the film’s unarguable low point.)
Leo’s willing to let Willie guide him because, he says quite truthfully, “I’m not too good with words.” That he’s stepping into a nest of nastiness will be abundantly clear to you, but then, you’ve probably seen at least one other Jimmy Caan movie. Besides, Willie’s nice suits are impressive, as is his romance with Leo’s beautiful cousin-for-whom-he-has-a-thing, Kitty’s daughter Erica (played by Charlize Theron wearing punkish black leather ornamentation and blue nailpolish, and affecting a broadly New Yawk accent). Erica’s mother is Val’s very dramatic and somewhat desperately ambitious sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway), married to Frank and well, it’s all a little much, isn’t it? The rest of the story is straight-up gangland melodrama, wherein Leo is betrayed by Frank and Willie, and must figure out how to be his own man. There are a few scenes that mark this development well, as elegant visual set-pieces, where Wahlberg’s furrowed brow or a shadow on a wall reveals more than any “words” might. For instance, Leo’s second wrong decision (after throwing in with Willie) comes in the yards, as their banality turns stunningly nightmarish in an instant. Tagging along on one of Willie-and-company’s sabotaging excursions, Leo suddenly finds himself caught between his decidedly feckless companions (who scamper off without him as soon as the alarm sounds) and a cop’s threatening flashlight beam. The lines of the tracks seem to lay out Leo’s unhappy fate, and he looks across them to see Willie committing a crime for which he Leo will be unjustly accused. And then it’s clear: Leo is not out of place, as he’s imagined himself, but inevitably a part of the world that has produced and continues to confine him. Ensuing events only build on the emotional and moral ground laid out in this moment. These events are increasingly overwrought and eventually exhausting. But the fact that they are set against such a relentlessly bleak backdrop helps to mediate what would otherwise be a full-on train wreck of emotional hyperbole. And Marky Mark, he does just fine.