“It’s about time we had a Western,” said the woman in front of me at the concession stand. She’d turned to ask me which theater 3:10 to Yuma was screening in, so I pointed over my shoulder at the open door, at which point she offered up her opinion about the lack of Westerns in modern cinema. In fact, could there be a more American story than the Western? Character dramas and thrillers are universal, and even something as soaked in Americana as baseball only goes so far, because everybody has sports movies. But a good Western, a chance for two men to square off with guns on a desert plain in some great big unholy shootout, damned to hell and joylessly grinning as they ride off to face destiny — that’s unbeatable. And that’s what director James Mangold brings to 3:10 to Yuma, a violent, sweaty Western that inhabits the genre’s melodramatic hallmarks while also functioning as a modern-day drama about a dysfunctional family. It’s a big, sprawling, believable story, and the plot’s few stumbles are balanced by the scope and skill of the whole thing.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a poor Arizona rancher struggling to keep his cattle alive and his family fed through a miserable drought. He’s in debt to businessman Glen Hollander (Lennie Loftin), who’s dammed the river ahead of Dan’s ranch and is slowly choking him off from the water supply. Hollander even sends men out to burn Dan’s barn as a threat of impending foreclosure (the Old West was less than kind when serving eviction notices). Dan is beat down from the outset, and Bale excels at haggard characters like these. Bale’s performance is in some ways reminiscent of his work as Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn: Both men are noble, and true, and doing their best to hold their worlds together with two hands and empty prayers. Dan is out one day with his young boys, Mark (Benjamin Petry) and William (Logan Lerman), trying to round up the herd when they come across actual highway robbery. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang are holding up a stagecoach manned by men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, including Pinkerton bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), and have hijacked Dan’s herd as a roadblock. Wade spots Dan and his sons and lets them go, but not before Dan is forced to turn over his weapons and horses in a moment of humiliation that further ruins him in the eyes of 14-year-old William. William throws around considerable angst for a kid his age, in part because it’s been 50 years since the original film version of 3:10 to Yuma, but also because the script is a little too eager to set William up as the externalization of Dan’s fear of failure. It’s not enough that he has a family to provide for; that little nagging devil in his ear is given a voice, and a body, and a chip on its shoulder way too big for a boy whose father has done him so little wrong. But that’s the nature of turning an old tale — Elmore Leonard’s original short story was published in 1953, and the movie followed 4 years later — into a new one; there’s a necessary hybrid of old and new, of straight-ahead action and pseudo-psychological introspective exposition. Though based on the original screenplay, the new one was rewritten by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who previously teamed on the spectacularly awful 2 Fast 2 Furious and Catch That Kid. It’s a blessing that their presence is blessedly counterbalanced by the remnants of Halsted Welles’ original script. I shudder to think what kind of godforsaken cowboy picture would be unleashed by the team who wrote a movie Vin Diesel passed on.
After Dan and his boys make their way home with the injured Byron, Dan heads for the nearest town, Bisbee, in the hopes of setting his debts to right, though he winds up encountering Wade again at the local hotel and gets the drop on him, leading to Wade’s arrest. Dan is then forced to make the first of what will be many bad, bad choices in the film: Broke, thirsty, and up against the wall, he agrees to help escort Wade to Contention, some 40 miles away, for $200 and the hope of getting out of the hole he’s dug for himself.
The transporting of Wade takes up the bulk of the rest of the film, and that’s what sets it apart from many other Westerns. The drama here largely comes from the battle of wills between Dan and Wade, who hold a grudging respect for each other even as they loathe what the other man stands for. Ben, Byron, the local doctor (Alan Tudyk) and a couple of lawmen set out with Wade for Contention with the goal of putting Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he’ll be hanged at the prison. It’s a simple plot, almost elegant: Move the man from point A to point B in X amount of time. But that simplicity is the source of the film’s tension, as Dan deals with Wade’s mind games and the entire gang tries to stay one step ahead of Wade’s gang, who want their boss back and would happily slaughter any who stand in their way. And more than a few men, good and bad, do get slaughtered, but the body count is never ridiculous, nor the bloodshed extreme.
There’s a believability about the film that borders on the low-key, even in the multiple shootouts between the posse and Wade’s gang, and a big part of that comes from the central dynamic between Bale and Crowe, who are so perfect in their roles that they at times seem to be in another movie altogether, something dark and weird and Shakespearean, where two men face off against each other not out of need or desire, but out of some twisted sense of fate. Crowe’s Wade is a ruthless killer, but never once loses his composure; hell, he never even gigs his horse or yells at it, just makes soft clucking sounds to guide the animal down the path. His eerie calm grounds the character, making him that much more formidable an opponent for Dan. Bale, meanwhile, brings the right note of desperation to Dan, who’s weary and heavy-laden enough to do anything to save his family. Wade tempts Dan throughout the film with offers of a cash reward if Dan will let the killer go free, and the legitimate conflict between a burdensome right and an easy wrong is played out beautifully on Bale’s face. The rest of the cast is also fantastic, though none as much as Ben Foster, who plays Wade’s second-in-command, Charlie Prince, and whose amazing supporting turn here could finally be the young actor’s breakthrough. After solid work in everything from Liberty Heights to Alpha Dog and “Six Feet Under,” Foster explodes across the screen here as a psychotic gunslinger, all mincing gestures and crazy eyes and cold-hearted murder. Foster more than holds his own when he’s sharing the screen with Crowe and Bale, and carries his own scenes with a confident swagger.
“No one will think less of you” if you let Wade walk away, Dan’s wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), tells him. He gives a sad grin and says, “No one can think less of me.” Taking Wade to justice is Dan’s chance to finally be recognized not for finally doing the right thing, but for doing the right thing all along. He’s not a warlike man, but he’s willing to become one if that’s what it takes to do his duty and save his family. Mangold’s tightly focused film is a good example of the glorious possibilities of mixing a compelling character story with a richly detailed genre setting, as well as the latest in a series of modern Westerns — Unforgiven, The Proposition, “Broken Trail” — that herald a comeback for the field. It’s about time, indeed.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Go Face Them and Fight Them, Be Savage Again
Film | September 9, 2007 | Comments ()