The Yards

When a film has as oppressively drab a tone to it as “The Yards” does, it’s hard to have much hope when a character says, in the first scene, “From now on, we’re going to have nothing but good times.”

That character is Val Handler (Ellen Burstyn), a brave Queens woman who has raised her son, Leo (Mark Wahlberg), on her own for most of his life. The occasion of her groundlessly optimistic statement is a welcome home party for Leo, who is out on parole after doing time for auto theft.

Leo, played with sullen, quiet sensitivity by Wahlberg (whom we can finally call a real actor, now that he’s done a movie in which he doesn’t take off his shirt), has vowed to go straight. He achieves this for exactly one day, at which point he gets tangled up in something illegal.

His first day out of the joint, he goes to his aunt’s new husband’s business, down at the subway yards. Uncle Frank (James Caan) wants to help his nephew-by-marriage do the right thing, and tries to steer him away from working side-by-side with his best friend Willlie (Joaquin Phoenix), suggesting he try something in machinery instead.

The reason is that Willie’s job for Frank involves sabotaging other companies’ work (thus getting Frank’s company more city contracts), and bribing borough employees to look the other way. Willie, while insisting he wants to help his friend go straight, too, simultaneously gets him involved in his work, which Frank eventually agrees to.

Need it be stated that things go awry while doing a job one night? Well, they do, and Leo is blamed for something moderately bad that he did do (out of fear and self-defense), as well as for something dreadfully bad that he didn’t do. The whole corrupt, slimy system has to be brought down; unfortunately, it’s Leo’s own family involved in it all.

Another telling line of dialogue comes from Leo’s cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), who is dating Willie. She says, “I can’t wait until we’re married. We’re gonna have a whole family.” Dialogue such as that reminds us that, at its heart, this is really nothing more than your typical movie about crime families — from its grandiose musical score to its mobster-operatic final scenes and too-easy denouement. (Things wind up somewhat happily, though the film does its best to keep you from ever feeling too chipper.)

The acting, along with director/co-writer James Gray’s unfailingly bleak style, elevate this to be above the norm. We feel, very palpably, Leo’s sense of desperation, the feeling that no matter what, he can never climb out of this situation, the nightmare of realizing that what’s happened cannot be undone. Joaquin Phoenix uses the same cowardice masquerading as charm that served him so well in “Gladiator,” and it benefits this film enormously.

There are few “good times” to be had by this family. Maybe money can’t buy happiness after all.

B (; R, abundant harsh profanity, sexual and non-sexual nudity, moderate violence.)