The Yards: Is That All There Is?
After David Duval won the 2001 Open Championship, legend has it that the newly crowned Champion Golfer of the Year looked around his jet headed stateside and asked, into the empty space floating above the Atlantic, “Is that all there is?”
Leo Handler appears to ask himself a similar question in the final shot of James Gray’s 2000 film The Yards. Leo, played by Mark Wahlberg, has (in the version of the film I watched) just testified against Frank Olchin (James Caan) and Leo’s best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), who worked for Frank, for their role in the corrupt contract work within the Queens subway repair system. In the first and last shots of The Yards, Leo sits by himself on a rail car. He’s headed home after a stint in jail.
It’s appropriate that Leo’s return is the catalyst for the events of the film: the end of one’s sentence can serve as a symbol of rebirth, though I don’t think director James Gray and his co-writer Matt Reeves were much interested in the re- part. Prison took the life out of Leo. He lacks (perhaps lost in jail) the ominous strain of emotional intelligence that Willie carries in spades, that has afforded Willie a classically American male ascendance in the world. Leo enters back into this world and, like Frank and Willie and everyone who works in most any industry in New York or across the country, is subject to its corruption and bleak circularity all the same. It is not emotional intelligence Willie carries with him, charismatic as he may be. Willie’s gift is a willingness to break the law while feeling no shame. Everybody else is doing it.
Leo is not strong with words; he is a more physical character relative to the radiantly smooth-talking Willie. (Wahlberg’s biceps are enormous in this movie — I know he’s shredded in Boogie Nights, but he bulked up for this character who surely worked out plenty behind bars.) Frank doesn’t think Leo’s aspirations to work on contract negotiations with Willie are wise or suitable. He would rather Leo, with his physicality and evident lack in quick thinking, become an apprentice in a multi-year program, which doesn’t suit Leo’s need for a sudden paycheck to help pay for his mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) medical treatment. Frank is not a menacing man: he does what he thinks is best for his business.
Which includes sabotage. On Frank’s orders, Willie drags still-on-parole Leo to the railyards to sabotage a rival firm. Naturally, they’re caught (the film’s inciting incident) and Leo, who was put on watch duty, is hung out to dry. Willie attempted and failed to bribe the yard master, who rang the alarm. Leo fights the cop on guard and despite having done nothing wrong, he has to beat the officer into a coma in self-defense. As Leo flees the yard, he sees Willie shiv the yard master after he blew the alarm to fight Willie’s bribery attempt.
What is best for one’s business, legal or otherwise, is the undercurrent of the entire film. Frank does not want to endanger Leo or Willie, in fact quite the opposite. He’s a family man, and everyone in The Yards is connected by blood except for Frank: he’s the second husband to Kitty (Faye Dunaway), Leo’s mother’s sister and mother herself to Leo’s cousin Erica (Charlize Theron). Yet it’s Frank who rolls the ball around each corner of this story. Never does he wish harm upon Leo or Willie, but everyone’s desperation reaches a point where Frank is prepared to kill Leo. “I’ve gotta do what I can to protect what I’ve built. You know, for my family. Cause, uh, that’s all I got left.” When some of Frank’s bids are lost before he can even attempt to win them thanks to a rule protecting minority-owned manufacturers, he cannot afford another inconvenience, like what Leo and Willie have created.
Leo can’t finish the original job: to kill the cop in the hospital. The man soon awakens from a coma and immediately identifies Leo as his assailant. Leo has no good options: go to jail, or die at Frank’s behest to keep things quiet and Frank out of the picture. So he turns for protection to the firm Frank wanted Willie to sabotage in the first place, which results in a frightfully ironic scene at a public hearing on corruption among the rail yard contractors. Realizing that Leo’s and the officer’s testimony are in no firm’s interest, Frank and other contractors flee to a back office to negotiate a new deal, under the eye of the equally complicit borough president.
Shit hits the fan for all parties, as Willie’s temper leads to Erica’s (albeit accidental) death and Frank fails to charm Leo out of testifying against the entire Queens railyard system. By the film’s end, Leo finds himself once again by himself in a rail car. Willie is in jail, and Frank’s business flails. Leo will presumably never return to Queens or New York. Many men came before Leo and every single one took the easier way: Frank, Freddie, the yard master, the rivals of Frank’s whom Leo flees to when he can find no other option. The system endures, Ebert wrote. Leo did the right thing, the difficult thing, and there he is, alone, asking himself if this is all there is.
At the end of the film, David Duval came to mind. But I thought of Lance Armstrong before that, during the film. Our collective memories single out Armstrong’s infamy among the many cyclists who have been caught doping throughout the history of the sport, but I see something similar to Armstrong’s ethos in Frank. They are not such evildoers. Each man is forced — by a susceptible system — to protect what he built in a world that is not interested in fair play. When one body decides where the floor sits and another body moves it over, where does that leave the people who are simply trying to sit in the same place? Is it possible to obtain joy or purpose whatsoever when survival alone dictates the sale of one’s soul?