The Yards (2000)
Main cast: Mark Wahlberg (Leo Handler), Joaquin Phoenix (Willie Gutierrez), Charlize Theron (Erica Stoltz), James Caan (Frank Olchin), Ellen Burstyn (Val Handler), and Faye Dunaway (Kitty Olchin)
Director: James Gray

The Yards is a wonderfully low-key story about how a rather dim hero has to make difficult decisions about life. It is also a beautiful showcase to highlight the Sex God that is Joaquin Phoenix. Is there a man any more beautiful than he? While I suspect his wrestling scene with Mark Wahlberg may raise a few, er, eyebrows amidst the gay members of the audience, I can watch Phoenix scrub walls all day long. Heck, he can come over and read me the dictionary and I'll still be in bliss.

Seriously, I find The Yards a brilliant movie. Not just because it has the most beautiful man at the moment in my estimation in it, but because it succeeds to depicting the complexities of human lives. Sometimes we have to make difficult choices, and sometimes good and evil aren't clear cut. What happens when "evil" happens to be your own family or your best friend who has done so much for you?

Leo Handler is fresh out of prison. In need of a job, he is soon introduced to the behind te scenes of the railway business, where his best friend Willie is paid to find men to sabotage a rival's business. Things get sticky, however, when Willie accidentally killed a man while on the job and Leo is implicated for the murder. Since the gang leader is Leo's own Uncle Frank, Leo now has to bring down his own family to save himself. Likewise, Willie now has to face a choice, whether to bring Leo, his best friend, down or face the music himself.

Likewise, Uncle Frank isn't evil. He is just a desperate businessman being squeezed out of his niche by minority concessions.

That's the plus about this movie. People hurt even as they betray, and the sight of Pheonix's Willie crying as he awaits news of Leo's death (he had Leo to be killed) is haunting. Compared to Phoenix, Wahlberg is a block of wood with little spontaneity, but since his character is written as a not-too-smart man with little emotional range, Wahlberg isn't too bad here.

And the female castmembers hold their own beautifully. Charlize Theron (this woman is everywhere!) plays Erica Stoltz, Leo's old flame and now Willie's girlfriend, and she is amazing as a woman confused by her boyfriend. There's no love triangle mess here, by the way, thank goodness. Likewise, Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn play their roles as suffering mothers or strong wives with great dignity and enough punch.

The Yards is not just a simple thriller, it also succeeds in highlighting the pains and joys of 1970's America, the dynamics of a large family, and the pain of difficult choices. That it has the talented, delicious Joaquin Phoenix in it doesn't hurt too much either. If only I am 30 years younger. *sigh*

Rating: 89

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