I'm not going to go overboard and declare James Gray a great filmmaker based on his Director's Cut of The Yards as a few relatively sane folks have done; I think it's a textured, fascinating character study, but it just misses on some level. It could be that Gray got to Mark Wahlberg too soon, or that he just wasn't 100% on what he wanted to do with the story, but the fact that I have a hard time recalling the plot of the movie is a pretty clear indication that something didn't connect. And yet I'd happily watch it again for the atmosphere, Gray's well-considered shot composition and, of course, Harris Savides's cinematography.
Though I prefer Gray's debut, Little Odessa, to The Yards, there's no question that the second feature is more technically accomplished, which gives us every reason to hope that We Own the Night, debuting any moment now at this year's Cannes Film Festival, will elevate the director into the upper echelon of American filmmakers. We won't be seeing the film until the fall at the earliest (Columbia Pictures just bought U.S. distribution rights after Universal relinquished them for unspecified reasons), but we do have a trailer to tide us over, and it looks... good. I don't like the music cues one bit (someone's trying way too hard to suggest The Departed), but the action is advanced for a Gray movie, while the performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Wahlberg and Robert Duvall look terrific. The plot also seems more clearly defined than The Yards: here, a young club manager (Phoenix) is pressured by his cop brother (Wahlberg) and cop father (Duvall) to inform on Russian mobsters hanging out at his establishment. Eva Mendes co-stars as a piece of ass.
I'm a little disappointed that Gray didn't collaborate with Savides on We Own the Night, but Joaquin Baca-Asay shot Mark Romanek's excellent "99 Problems" video, so he'll do. Keep whatever you like to cross for good luck crossed that the reviews are kind to this one.