Monday, February 17, 2014

On the Yard (1978)

          Given the overwrought norm of the prison-movie genre, the narrative restraint that defines On the Yard is refreshing. Based on a novel by Malcolm Braly, who also wrote the script, the picture is a character-driven ensemble piece about lifers and recidivists either building subcultures or struggling to maintain isolation. On the Yard exudes authenticity in terms of behavior, dialogue, motivation, and ordinary details—and while the film stretches credibility with a fanciful climax, Braly and director Raphael D. Silver quite literally bring On the Yard back down to solid ground for a melancholy denouement.
          From start to finish, On the Yard articulates the sobering truth that time is an equalizer for prisoners—one day’s crisis is the next day’s fading memory, because everyone in the big house has a story just as sad as the next guy’s. Yet even though the filmmakers convey deep empathy for the harsh existence of convicts, neither Braly nor Silver ignore the weight of the crimes that put their characters behind bars—On the Yard asks viewers to wrestle with the paradox that criminals simultaneously personify humanity and inhumanity.
          John Heard, an actor whose great skill is subtly injecting pathos into emotionally remote characters, stars as Juleson, an educated man incarcerated for killing his wife. Juleson tries to live in his mind, avoiding prison-yard politics and schemes, until he accidentally gets into hock with Chilly (Thomas G. Waites), a slick operator who rules the inmate population through contraband and gambling. The offbeat quandary driving the story is that Chilly realizes he must make an example of Juleson, even though he admires and likes the guy; concurrently, Juleson recognizes that if he acquiesces to Chilly’s pressure by doing a favor that breaks prison policy, he’ll become part of an insidious system. Complicating this fascinating battle of wills is a secondary struggle between Chilly and Blake (Lane Smith), the captain of the prison’s guards. At the very moment Chilly looks for ways to show mercy for Juleson, Blake cracks down on Chilly’s operation, forcing Chilly to publicly flex his muscle. Also woven into the story are the sagas of Morris (Joe Grifasi), a frightened little man meticulously planning an outrageous escape, and Red (Mike Kellin), a social misfit who keeps getting thrown back in jail because he can’t function in the outside world.
          Structurally, On the Yard is more novelistic than cinematic, but the languid rhythms of the narrative help generate surprises—the movie takes several unexpected turns that add thought-provoking dimensions. Furthemore, the terrific acting by nearly every member of the cast meshes with Braly’s strategy of placing believable people into unimaginable circumstances. Heard does especially good work, revealing Juleson’s anguish while emphasizing the man’s odd mixture of dignity and self-loathing; Waites beautifully illustrates the way Chilly teeters between power and impotence; and Grifasi and Kellin lend poignancy to their roles as pathetic men with few choices in life.

On the Yard: GROOVY

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