There is a school of thought that says westerns come in two varieties. The first kind – often dubbed the “John Wayne style” – features noble cowboys and lawmen who are morally superior and represent an idealized version of the American spirit. The other kind is more morally ambiguous in its themes, suggesting that those in the Wild West were just as fallible or conflicted as anyone else. These are usually referred to as the “Clint Eastwood style” westerns. Some movie fans appreciate both kinds, but many people have a strong preference for one over the other, and which one you choose probably says something about how you see the world. Personally, I’ve always fallen very heavily on the Clint Eastwood side. Big sloppy wet kisses to the cowboy way of life bore me; I much prefer something meatier, darker, and angrier.
Which brings me to 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the classic Glenn Ford western, now remade by director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line). I refrained from seeing the original before the remake to avoid comparison, so I can’t comment on that film’s style. However, the remake is rooted very firmly in the Eastwood tradition of moral complexity. What Mangold delivers is not just one of this year’s best films, but also one my favorite westerns ever.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a struggling rancher who is close to losing everything due to unpaid debts. Creditors have already burned his barn down for failure to make a payment. Because of this situation, Dan feels he has let down his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol). His teenage son William (Hoot star Logan Lerman) is openly contemptuous of what he sees as his father’s wishy-washy attitude.
Dan gets a shot at redemption after a chance encounter with Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a most-wanted felon who has just robbed another stagecoach and killed several innocent men in the process. For the sum of $200 – enough cash to pay back his debts – he agrees to be part of a posse that transports Wade to a prison train bound for the town of Yuma. The task sounds straightforward except for the fact that Wade’s cohorts, now led by psychotic right-hand-man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), are determined to rescue him before the posse puts him on that train.
This plot alone virtually guarantees action and excitement, and while 3:10 to Yuma has those things in spades, it’s what goes on in between the mayhem that makes the movie truly special. As they undergo a series of hazards, escape attempts, and ambushes, Dan and Wade begin to form a connection. They don’t necessarily like each other; it’s more a realization that they have certain personality traits in common, even if they do live their lives in radically different manners. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the movie is that the good guys all have dark sides and the bad guys are evil, but not inhuman. Dan is basically a decent man, but he’s also got a lot of barely-suppressed anger over his financial situation, as well as an old war injury that doesn’t make his life any easier. Wade, on the other hand, is a ruthless, nasty killer, but also a person who responds to the basic human decency of others. The characters are two sides of the same coin, and this unexpected quality pays off dramatically in the story’s final moments, in which redemption is found in multiple ways.
Making it all more complex is that William has a very clear, albeit somewhat disturbed, reverence for Wade, who possesses the kind of no-nonsense authority that his father can never seem to muster. When the boy disobeys orders and catches up to the posse, there is a feeling that his soul is in as much danger as his body.
If I had to choose one word to describe the performances in 3:10 to Yuma, that word would be “perfection.” Christian Bale beautifully portrays Dan Evans’ desperation/determination, completely making us understand why he repeatedly puts himself in dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe turns in one of his best performances to date as Wade. Notice the way the actor embodies the character with a realistic kind of evil; Wade does horrible things but is not the monster many films would have made him. The character is assured of his own lethality, but there’s a method to which he applies it that makes him scary yet not completely unsympathetic. Mol and Lerman are also outstanding in supporting roles, as are Peter Fonda as a Pinkerton and Luke Wilson as a vengeful mine operator.
However, it is Ben Foster who steals the show. The young actor, who also appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand and Black Hawk Down, is utterly menacing as Charlie Prince. You get the sense that he is a younger, less tamed version of Ben Shaw, and that when he eventually heads up his own gang, he’ll be even more vicious than his mentor. The action scenes work, in large part, because of Foster’s believability as a merciless villain. He is not a big, hulking actor, yet he conveys the intensity of one.
Some movies start off with meaning, then lose it as they revert to action. Fortunately, 3:10 to Yuma doesn’t make that mistake. The action scenes, including a thrilling chase through a mining area, are there to highlight the interactions between the two central characters. Same goes for the exciting finale in which not even a colossal shootout is enough to deter Dan from trying to get Wade to the train on time.
It wouldn’t be fair to even hint at how the story pays off, but I think I can safely say that there’s a lot of meaning in it. As in most of the Eastwood westerns, this movie is not ultimately about the gunplay or the tough talk. Instead, it is about making hard decisions in bad circumstances. It examines people who try to do the right thing in a situation that seems to want to punish righteousness. 3:10 to Yuma reminds us that sometimes doing the right thing comes with a cost, and fear of having to pay that cost is, perhaps more than anything, what causes individuals to do wrong. What an entertaining, thoughtful, relevant film this is.
( out of four)
3:10 to Yuma is rated R for violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: 3:10 to Yuma
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