On the surface, The Yards isn’t a whole lot different than James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa. Both follow a young man with a rough past returning to his hometown after a long time away. Both explore the family dynamic in the wake of that return. Both watch as man and family alike are sucked back into old ways as if the place in which they all grew up would hold a dark fate regardless of how loudly they all raged against it. Both Little Odessa and The Yards, tragic movies about reluctant criminals, are criminally underseen as well (although they’re both now streaming on Netflix).
In Gray’s sophomore effort Mark Wahlberg is Leo, recent ex-con out on parole and returned to his ailing mother and his seedy extended family in Brooklyn. His good friend Willie is happiest to see him again, eager to reintroduce him to “the way things work”. Charlize Theron, James Caan and Faye Dunaway round out the impressive cast, but Joaquin Phoenix as Willie is the only one who mines his character for all he’s worth. If there’s anything that separates this feature from Little Odessa, it’s that the potential of The Yards is greater than the final result.
There are probably a great many directors who could claim to be “New York directors” or directors of “New York movies”. Plenty of auteurs film in the Big Apple, sure, but true New York movies have more than just the location and the accent. They have the feel, dumb as it sounds. Martin Scorsese is the name most likely to crop up in the present conversation, and in fact the case with Scorsese is such that the relationship might occasionally become reversed: Scorsese made his name depicting “New York things”, and he got so good at it that certain “Scorsese things” are now taken lock, stock and barrel as “New York things”. Take this simple, unadorned, stage-setting shot from James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa:
Doesn’t something about that just scream Scorsese? The obvious comparisons are there in the smokiness, the coloring, the detail in the clothing and the food on the tables. The neon sign in the window. But the staging and perspective, too, seem to recall Scorsese’s camera. This is one of the more straightforward examples of such influence on the young James Gray, but the point isn’t to highlight how Gray made Little Odessa on the foundations laid by guys like Scorsese – he didn’t, and it’s clear even in this debut feature (made when Gray was just twenty-five) that his style is a distinct one largely free of ties to any cinematic giants of note. And the point isn’t even to prove that James Gray is deserving of a prominent rank amongst New York directors like Scorsese, although he is. The point, for now, is that Gray crafted Little Odessa as a New York movie, crafted it with that New York feel, and he did so for a very specific reason.
Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.
But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.
The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.