Leo returns home from prison where he did time without implicating his accomplices, chiefly Willie. Desperate mum Val (Ellen Burstyn) begs sister Kitty and brother-in-law Frank to help Leo. But Frank is dirty, and Leo is soon witness to bribery, sabotage and murder. Again, Willie pressures Leo to bear the bad secrets of others.
Whats a New York story without corruption, conflicting loyalties and betrayal? In his second feature, co-writer and director James Gray revisits themes of his Little Odessa (1994) , another melancholy portrait of a family with clashing values. But he also plots a very familiar journey, that of the outsider who stands alone if he exposes the truth or squeals, as seen in, oh, Wall Street (1987) , City Hall (1996) , assorted mob movies and Sidney Lumet police dramas, including Serpico (1973) and Prince Of The City (1981) . Crime there must be, and those here come from Uncle Franks appetite for city contracts to repair electric rail cars; the subway yards in dreary Queens - now theres a sexy, riveting backdrop for you... not!
Of course, the same could be said, in theory, of harbour unions in the dockyards of New York. The giant shadow of On The Waterfront (1954) hovers over this tough drama of a not-terribly-bright young man who wants to do right, but clings to misplaced loyalty rather than be a rat, far longer than conscience, sense or self-preservation would dictate. The addition of Theron as Leos troubled cousin and Willies American dream girl, however, is a bright thought, since this emotional triangle has more oomph and fresher interest than the murky morality play.
The gritty tone, underlined by an overblown score by Howard Shore, is fluffed in some strained sequences - such as a backroom deal-making scene that verges on satire - and all too obvious improbabilities: surely James Caans vulgarian Frank would not have Faye Dunaway but, more likely, a slapper her daughters age for his new trophy wife, for one. Style and a strong ensemble - in which Joaquin Phoenix is a standout, more complex and tragic than Mark Wahlbergs dimbulb hero - do however add a welcome veneer of class, and manage to command the audiences attention.
Better in execution than in content, and Gray will be a name to watch once his talents are allied to a better screenplay, for he is undoubtedly a gifted, distinctive visual artist. Just as well, since the writing here is full of ideas, but gloomily ambiguous and lacking in originality or excitement.