3:10 to Yuma
2007Director: James Mangold
Cast: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Logan Lerman
s with the musical, the second life of the Western in Hollywood comes with an unnecessary set of expectations. Since every new movie in the genre is expected to ignite a revival, or at least to be referred to as part of one, none can stand alone. More to the point, because the market for Westerns is generally hostile, every new one is expected to be a prestige piece, an original and artistically refined vision that swings back to the genre’s old days as well as invigorates a modern audience.
To the suits, 3:10 to Yuma must have fit cozily into this narrative. The director is James Mangold, whose cred is solid after leading his boilerplate biopic Walk the Line to dubious awards-season attention, and the stars are Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, one of whom has won an Oscar and another who will soon enough. But in fact this is not a great movie or even the beginnings of one, and it’ll no doubt be considered a failure because of it. That’s too bad, because by all conventional rites, 3:10 to Yuma is agreeably fashioned old-school genre work, finely equipped and straightforwardly made, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t be enough.
The movie’s basic framework will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Western, and I don’t mean because it’s a remake of the 1957 film of the same title (which was itself based on a shot story by Elmore Leonard). There’s a disillusioned ranger (Bale) with kids to feed and no mind to start trouble. There’s an amoral outlaw (Crowe) with a quick drawl and faster pistol who sees to it that said soft-spoken rancher will have to rise out of his worn haunt. There’s the defiant teenage son, the sadistic law, the casually stunning bar wench. You’ve met these characters, and they’re here because they work.
The setup this time fashions a hero out of both the rancher, Dan Evans, and the outlaw, Ben Wade, as the men enter into a sort-of duel on the way to bring Wade to justice. Evans becomes involved in transferring an incarcerated Wade to the titular train ride that will take him to be tried and hanged, along with a group that includes a mild-mannered veterinarian (Alan Tudyk), a crotchety bounty hunter (Peter Fonda), a railroad official (Dallas Roberts), and Evans’s 14-year-old son (Logan Lerman, a 15-year-old who in many respects gives the movie’s most canny performance). On their path is inevitably Wade’s gang of thugs, led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), an apparent sociopath with an even happier trigger than his captured leader.
Played by Foster with brazen eyeliner that elevates his performance’s camp value (a benefit he didn’t have in a similar role in last winter’s Alpha Dog), Prince is an odd fit for the incarnation of old-west evil the movie imagines him to be. He’s meant in a way to be a surrogate for Wade, or at least a figure created from the culture of amorality he has cultivated in his gang. Neither man, though, is credible as a villain, especially not Wade, who is played by Crowe with a slyness that’s far too affable to be confrontational. Yeah, he shoots just about everyone in this movie, but does it with genial, aw-shucks indifference, as if he doesn’t really have a choice (even though most of the time, he clearly does). Though the movie is intent on the opposite, we never doubt he’ll come through for us when it counts.
As transparent as his character is, he has an appropriate, slightly more credible foil in Evans, a damaged man who wants to prove himself to his wife and boys. Embodied by Bale with bruised, muted sincerity, he’s a resonant character if not an invigorating one. The movie rubs in his worrisome fate with a little too much regularity, but he’s on a thoroughly honorable mission that he’s intent to finish even as his backup ends up in the ground one by one with each passing mile.
Mangold tries to slip in a little healthy revisionism, but not much of it sticks. There’s a passing run-in with a local Native American tribe, which allows Wade to crack at one of his captors about the man’s apparent slaughter of some tribal children years back. This is especially poignant, you can imagine, coming from a man who at one point pointedly recalls mowing down a train full of people the previous spring for no obvious reason. Later, a man tells another his torture methods are “immoral,” and then proceeds to bang the guy’s head in with a shovel.
But if the fine points of 3:10 to Yuma are shaky, the narrative thrust is exactly as it should be, an exciting, classically rendered tale of two makeshift foes in the old west. Mangold, the director of movies as varied as Identity, Kate and Leopold, and Girl, Interrupted, is at his best here mostly because he keeps it simple. With Marco Beltrami’s twangy score and the estimable cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s adept photography, the movie thrives on the straightforward outfit of the Western, and that should be the only real criterion for its success.