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James Gray's 2000 thriller received a mixed response upon release. Some found the film to be rather dull and tedious whereas others loved the dark atmosphere and the inevitable tragedy of the story. Personally, I loved it. The plot doesn't sound particularly thrilling, being centred around the crooked business practices of a New York subway train parts repair/manufacturing company, but it soon becomes interesting when the almost carefree swindling, bribery and sabotage go tragically wrong one night, resulting in one man's death and a police officer in a coma. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The movie sets the scene with the brooding and emotionally scarred-looking Leo Handler (played by Mark Wahlberg) travelling home after having served an eighteen month prison term for grand theft auto. He arrives to a welcome party attended by all his friends and relatives, including his ever-worrying mother. The party sets the mood for the rest of the film - it is dark, the people are slightly uncomfortable, and everyone is packed into a tiny apartment; the scene's whole atmosphere is oppressive and somehow betrays the fact that something bad is inevitably looming, a feeling which is carried throughout the film and is perhaps as much due to Leo's constantly furrowed brow as the atmosphere itself.

We soon learn that in serving his prison sentence Leo was in fact taking the rap for something his friends had done but, now released, he just wants to get his life back on the straight and narrow, to "become a productive person again" as he tells his parole officer. We also see some occasional sexual tension between Leo and his hot cousin Erica, the daughter of his aunt Kitty (Faye Dunaway), played by Charlize Theron who spends much of the film wearing a lot of black make-up and a variety of vaguely punk-ish accessories. Kitty's second husband Frank (James Caan) is Erica's resented step-father, the owner of the business upon which the storyline is based, and Erica's boyfriend, a childhood friend of Leo's, is the slick Willie Guttierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), who flashes around an awful lot of cash. He is evidently doing well at his recently-acquired job with Frank, a slightly shady-sounding position on which both of them refuse to comment in detail.

Leo naturally thinks that getting a job with his step-uncle alongside Willie would be ideal, but he is initially told by Frank that he has nothing for an unqualified person like himself. Willie has words however, and convinces Frank to let him take Leo under his wing, and we see the two of them as Willie shows Leo what a typical day is like. It becomes clear why he and Frank are so vague about it - the day is spent bribing officials and other men of authority with cash, jewellery, baseball tickets, presents for the wife, anything they need in exchange for business which rightfully and lawfully belongs to their competitors. Willie generously gives Leo a few hundred as a taster, and Leo tags along that night as a group of Willie's boys set out to sabotage a few of their main competitor's trains.

This is when things go horribly wrong and everyone runs, leaving Leo to fend for himself. Before running, Leo happens to look across to see Willie comitting the murder he himself will be blamed for, and the rest of the film sees him on the run from both the law and the family he works for while he regularly sneaks back to check up on his ageing mother. Along the way he begins to confide in his cousin Erica who has been looking after his mother in his absence, causing further complications once Willie finds out.

The whole story is heavy with a vague sort of sadness, the handywork of director James Gray who says that he had an operatic weightiness a la Puccini in mind for the film. From the all-pervading darkness surrounding the bleak backdrop of the New York train yards to the viewer's empathetic frustration at Leo's lack of choices other than to get more involved in the world he so wanted to avoid, there is always the feeling that things are going to keep spiralling toward inevitable tragedy. From the beginning Leo had been protected by his friend Willie who always seems to know what to do and say, and who had always assured Leo that he wouldn't let him get into any kind of trouble, but now he was suddenly abandoned in a world he barely understood and, however much it broke his heart, he was forced to fight alone in order to bring down his own family and friends.

Without giving too much away (although it may be too late for that) the ending is strangely bittersweet, leaving the viewer pleased with the outcome but saddened by the terrible way it all had to happen. Overall I though the story was well told, although some have complained that the ending is the movie's low point, and my only complaint would have to be Mark Wahlberg's somewhat monotonous performance. To be fair however this no doubt went some way toward adding to the film's all-important atmosphere, something which turned what could have been a fairly average TV movie-material snoozefest into a gripping and involving story.

There is actually far more depth to the characters than I have presented here, which earned Joaquin Phoenix a Best Supporting Actor award from the 2000 Broadcast Film Critics Association. The film itself actually premiered at Cannes before its American release in October 2000 and, having finally seen it on DVD, it looks to me like the kind of film which will be either loved or hated by its viewers. Overall though I am sure the brooding atmosphere and complex web of well-developed characters will capture all but the most hardened action fans.

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