In the best film noir, there's always a sense of doom as the story tightens its grip on the lead and mercilessly pulls him back into the darkness. So when a movie opens with Leo (Mark Wahlberg), a young man fresh out of prison, riding on a train as it emerges from a tunnel, you'd expect it to signal an optimistic mood. However, this is the second film by James Gray (Little Odessa), so you know that this train is trundling along on a one-track journey to tragedy.
Darkness permeates both of Gray's movies. It's not just in the story and its themes of corruption, death and betrayal - it seeps into every inch of the screen. Like The Godfather before them, The Yards and Little Odessa are swamped by shadow. The colours are washed out, the locations worn, the older characters drained by life's disappointments.
In Leo's family home, the lightbulbs glow faintly and the peeling wallpaper looks like it has seen far better days. It's a world painted black, for which even the normally blonde Charlize Theron has been transformed into a sultry brunette.
Gray creates an environment that feels as diseased as Leo's dying mother (Ellen Burstyn). In order to win contracts and keep other firms (and other ethnic communities) out of business, Leo's uncle's team sabotage the local trains. But this commuter service is the area's lifeblood, linking its inhabitants to work and play, and so the neighbourhood is slowly destroying itself.
Leo is drawn back home for positive reasons - loyalty to his sick mother - but is trapped there by a negative impulse: `street' loyalty to his criminal friends. This outdated honour code is his tragic flaw, because only when he's betrayed by family and friends will he contemplate betrayal against others. At that point he himself threatens to become, in a wider sense, the tragic flaw that could bring down the whole operation.
With three great '70s stars (James Caan, Faye Dunaway and Burstyn) matched by three of the new century's most exciting young turks Wahlberg, Theron and Joaquin Phoenix), the oldies bring some appropriate baggage with them. When Caan sits in a leather chair in a wood-panelled office, it's as if Sonny Corleone has survived and become a small-scale Godfather. But, as it was with Tim Roth and Edward Furlong in Little Odessa, the focus is really on the younger members of the cast, with Phoenix emerging as a seductive, yet fragile, force.
By the end, so much that is shown to be good - friendship, trust, beauty - in the film has been destroyed. For some, this relentlessly downbeat feel might overwhelm the movie. Others, however, will reap rewards if they allow themselves to be absorbed by the director's vision. Come to the dark side.
Using a more sombre tone than the Scorsese-style dynamics of other New York crime dramas, The Yards' bleak heart defines the movie. Gray has created a wonderfully complete portrait of life in the shadows that holds true on every artistic level.