American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
There is a sad, tender quality in "The Yards" I couldn't put my finger on, until I learned that the director's father inspired one of the characters. The movie is set around the yards where the New York mass transit trains are made up and repaired. It is about a kid who gets out of jail, wants to do right and gets in trouble again. And about his uncle, who works on both sides of the law. This uncle is not an evil man. When he breaks the law, it's because in his business those who do not break the law don't remain in business. The system was corrupt when he found it and will be corrupt when he leaves it. He has to make a living for his family.
It's that ambiguity that makes the film interesting. Most crime movies have a simplistic good vs. evil moral structure. When "The Godfather" comes along, with its shades of morality within a shifting situation, it exposes most mob pictures as fairy tales. "The Yards" resembles "The Godfather" in the way it goes inside the structure of corruption, and shows how judges and elected officials work at arms' length with people they know are breaking the law. But it also resembles "Mean Streets," the film about two childhood friends who get in over their heads.
Early in the film, Frank explains his business: "If it's on a train or a subway, we make it or we fix it." This process involves bribes, kickbacks and theft. But Frank is a reasonable and measured man who operates within a system that everyone tacitly accepts, even the police. There's a way things are done, everybody gets taken care of, everybody's happy. I was intrigued by how the writer-director James Gray makes Frank not a villain but a hard-working guy who breaks the law, yes, but isn't a bad guy in the usual movie sense.
Then I learned that Frank was somewhat inspired by Gray's own father, who was involved in the same racketeering scandal that led to the 1986 suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes, who stabbed himself when it was revealed that he had taken payoffs. When your father is supposed to be the bad guy, you don't always see it that way. It gets complicated.