Sunday, September 19, 2010

3:10 to Yuma Movie Review

In the pantheon of classic Westerns, the 1957 3:10 to Yuma, directed by Delmer Daves, sits on the shelf of forgotten films. There’s simply no room in the history books for entertainments that rank slightly better than mediocre. Unfortunately it also suffered a close resemblance to High Noon, which went on to fill the quota for films about a lone idealist standing up for justice when no one else will.

For better or worse, the 2007 James Mangold remake is also likely to suffer a similar fate 50 years from now. There’s little in this update which will make it into a classic, but that hardly means it isn’t worth seeking out today.

Christian Bale provides a great introspective performance as Dan Evans, a crippled rancher having trouble making ends meet as a result of a large railroad company trying to force him from his land. He finds a way to bring in some fast cash if he helps escort Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a notorious outlaw, to the next town and put him on a train to Yuma prison.

The plot is mostly faithful to the original, itself based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. The 92 minutes of the first film have been filled out to a plump 122 minutes by expanding the journey to the train.

The escorting posse includes Evans, railroad man Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), the town veterinarian (Alan Tudyk) and a local enforcer (Kevin Durand). They're in a race against time because Ben’s gang, which includes the cold-blooded killer Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), whose speed with a pistol is surpassed only by Ben Wade himself, is on the hunt and would just as soon put a bullet in any of Wade’s captors as they would step on an insect.

This is one of the most polished westerns I’ve seen in a long while. It’s competently shot by Phedon Papamichael (a cinematographer whose list of credits doesn’t quite suggest greatness, but which are always very well composed and good-looking) and the production design from the location shooting to the costumes and set decoration always feel authentic. There’s crispness in the grit and dirt seen on the characters. Take a look at the westerns made in the golden age of the genre – the characters were rarely dirty.

Crowe and Bale have made interesting roles out the characters of Wade and Evans. This isn’t quite the kind of character study that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was, but there is still some element of the ambiguity over who exactly is a hero and who is an outlaw. Certainly there is no question that Evans is a good man. He may be looked down up by his eldest son, William (Logan Lerman), and he has moments of self-reflection and doubt that make you think he could give in to temptation under the right circumstances, but ultimately he’s a man who performs his duty.

His escorting Ben Wade to the train is not done out of a sense of justice, but because he needs the money and he wants to be able to look his wife and son in the eyes and know that he did something good. His dilemma is one that has plagued philosophers for centuries: are any good deeds truly altruistic or do we always act selfishly to some extent? When he’s holed up in a hotel room with Wade waiting for the hour to arrive, he’s offered a great sum of money to walk away. Bale’s face registers everything you need to know about Dan's contemplation of such a tempting offer. Does he ultimately reject the offer because, practically speaking, he wouldn’t be able to explain it or is it because it’s the wrong thing to do? You’ll have to watch the scene to judge for yourself.

Crowe’s role is also quite interesting. Ben Wade thinks of himself as an evil-to-the-core outlaw. He has a reputation as such among the townspeople, as well. In an early scene, he barely thinks twice about shooting a member of his own gang in order to shoot the man holding him. We believe he’s capable of anything. Yet as played by Russell Crowe, an actor who brings a certain amount of movie star charm with him (even if Crowe is not always the dapper charmer in his personal life), he is not always threatening. He shares a meal as a captive in the Evans house and makes Dan’s wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol), feel pretty and desirable in a way it seems she hasn’t in a long time. The honest good guys provide a solid life, but the bad guys provide excitement, don’t they?

Wade doesn’t always seem like such a terrible human being, and even young William (who secretly tags along behind the posse) points out to him that he has done some good things and helped them along the way. Wade notes in return that those deeds were done in the interest of self-preservation. He also reminds the boy that leading a group of thugs like he leads, he wouldn’t last even five minutes if he weren’t just as bad as the baddest among them.

At that point in the film, we have to agree with Wade that his good deeds were committed to save his own skin. This invites an obvious comparison to Dan, who is also performing a good deed out of self-interest. What then is the difference? At the risk of supporting a Machiavellian view of the world, if the end result is that Wade saved Dan’s life once or twice or that Dan gets Wade on the prison train, what does it matter what motivated them? I pose these questions because they are questions that are there to be explored in the film, even if screenwriters Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, as well as Mangold and Leonard never had any intention of exploring those issues.

One issue that certainly is at the forefront for discussion is what motivates Wade’s actions at the end of the film. Without giving away too much, he performs a deed that at once makes us feel a sense of victory (from Dan’s perspective) and a sense of melancholy (from Wade’s). The Delmer Daves film poses a similar conundrum, although not quite as explicitly depicted. Even if the answers are not forthcoming, you’ll still have spent a thoughtful couple of hours with a really well-made Hollywood western.

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