Daily Archives: September 22, 2007
The Western used to dominate the pop culture landscape. In the 1950s, you had John Ford and Gary Cooper in a different dustup practically every week at the cinema, and the TV lineup was wall-to-wall cowboys, Indians, horses, and damsel retrieval. The Western has become rather inactive since its cultural heyday and now resides on the outskirts of movie land, idly chatting with Screwball Comedy and Busby Berkley Musicals about how good they had it back then (yes, I have just personified genres). With that said, director James Mangold (Walk the Line) has remade the 1957 John Ford film 3:10 to Yuma for a modern movie-going audience. The film has to work extra hard just to overcome the prejudices of a dormant genre, but fortunately 3:10 to Yuma is a rousing drama that could have knocked ’em dead way back when.
Dan (Christian Bale) is a wounded Civil War veteran trying to eek out a living in Arizona. He cannot grow any crops because of drought conditions, is behind on his payments, and his teen son has no respect for dear old one-footed dad. To keep his family financially afloat, Dan agrees to help transport notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to his date with justice.. It’s three days to ride across Arizona and get Wade onto the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, and along the way the posse is beset by unexpected setbacks and Wade’s gang hot on their heels to save their imprisoned leader.
This is no deconstructionist Western or a modern revisionist Western, no this is an old-fashioned Western and Mangold embraces the genre staples instead of steering away from them (runaway stagecoaches, high-noon showdowns, ineffective lawmen, saloon girls). There’s a reverence for the genre and Mangold makes sure the audience soaks up the dusty details of frontier life with lots of revealing close-ups. You can practically taste the earth these men are caked in. The script is filled with plenty of surprises along the way as Ben keeps regaining the upper hand even as he’s outnumbered and in shackles. The story benefits greatly from really opening up and exploring in depth whom Dan and Ben are and what makes them this way. 3:10 to Yuma does not paint in broad strokes and dwells in a lot of grey, which presents opportunities for the actors to work their magic.
At the heart of the film is the moral battle between Ben and Dan, and both actors rise to the occasion. Crowe’s name is all but a guarantee for a quality performance and he shows an array of seemingly contradictory elements to Ben Wade. He has roguish charm and swagger, but then in an instant you can feel the intense glare of hatred in his eyes, and the scary calm in his voice, and you realize that this man is a caged tiger always stalking his prey. He can erupt in sudden and vicious violence and then fall back into a conscienceless laugh. He has moments that seem like empathy and kindness, but then you realize every seemingly kind gesture has a hidden meaning that links back to Ben’s own benefit. Crowe is magnificent and plays around with audience expectations to keep us jumping back and forth between liking the sly brute and fearing him.
Bale is equally as good as a martyr for his moral principles. He sticks to his ethical convictions no matter the hardships and temptations to take an easy way out. The painful lengths Dan goes to protect his family produce several touching exchanges and add substantial meat to a character that very easily could have been drawn as a simplistic do-gooder. Bale sells every moment with commendable authenticity.
The rest of the supporting cast -Gretchen Mol, Alan Tudyk, a near unrecognizable Peter Fonda- add strong contributions to the movie, but none more memorable than Ben Foster. As Ben Wade’s sadistic right hand man, Foster displays a sick brand of hero worship and homicidal insanity. He’s an unpredictable and menacing figure and Foster magnifies these qualities to frightening realization. These excellent actors make 3:10 to Yuma more than throwback; it reminds you how great Westerns can be with the right actors and devotion to characters.
The only marks against 3:10 to Yuma occur during its climax. Things escalate immensely into a wild shoot-out that racks up a massive body count. While exciting, the sequence feels at odds with the intimate moral struggle between these two men. I’m also unsure about whatever prompted some eleventh hour motivational change for one key character. The ending is unnecessarily dark and will surely leave most audiences with a bad taste in their mouth to exit upon. Maybe it’s just the recent bout of films that I’ve been watching, but I’m starting to get tired of movies that are convinced that a pointlessly tragic ending somehow makes their story more meaningful (The Painted Veil, my wife is still upset with you, novel adaptation or not). A happy ending has long been perceived as a trite Hollywood cliché, but now I wonder of the pendulum has swung too far the other way so that conventional thinking says an audience has to be left wanting more or dissatisfied for a movie to attain higher artistic credibility. This is, of course, utter nonsense. A movie ending need only be appropriate for the scope of its story, but then again it doesn’t have to strive for forced wisdom delivered by unnecessary tragedy.
3:10 to Yuma is a hard-charging, stoic, classic American Western of the old guard with a bit more blood and profanity mixed in for a modern public. Despite a small handful of missteps toward the end, this is an engaging and often gripping morality tale catapulted by two strong performances from foreign-born actors showing Americans how the West was done right. Let 3:10 to Yuma stand as proof that any genre, no matter how outdated, can succeed as long as the filmmakers place care with character and treat the audience with a modicum of respect.
Nate’s Grade: B+