3:10 To Yuma (United States, 2007)
Once upon a time, the Western served the function that currently resides within the purview of Science Fiction: use an allegorical approach to explore themes and ideas that might not fit well within the scope of a traditional motion picture. It has been more than 35 years since the Western was a popular genre but, when one is well-made, it can still arrest the attention and transport the viewer to another place and time. Of course, few modern Westerns take the simplistic view of cowboys/good-Indians/bad; we have come beyond that. 3:10 to Yuma is one of those complex films that twists morality and toys with the notion of the outlaw as a folk hero. It's modern in its perspectives and approach - even though it's based on a staid 50-year-old original (which, in turn, was adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story).
It's the Old West as we know it: stagecoaches, horses, gunfights, ramshackle towns that appear to have sprung out of nowhere, and bad guys who are more dangerous when they smile than when they frown. The only thing missing are the tumbleweeds. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) has studied his John Ford and Howard Hawks. He has assembled a respectable cast, with Christian Bale playing opposite Russell Crowe and recognizable names like Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, and Gretchen Mol in supporting roles. It wouldn't be fair to claim that this is the best Western thus far in 2007, since it's the only Western thus far in 2007 (although The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is on the way), but it's worth the investment of time and money.
For Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the capture of notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) represents opportunity. Dan needs cash to save his ranch - he owes money and foreclosure is in the picture. Despite having lost part of one leg in the Civil War, Dan's a sharpshooter and proves an important addition to the group escorting Ben to a train station, where he'll board the 3:10 to Yuma Prison, where a hangman's noose awaits. Also in the group are Dan's 14-year-old son, William (Logan Lerman), and a bounty hunter named Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), who has a long standing feud with Ben. The trip doesn't go well. The trail is fraught with peril, including bloodthirsty Apaches and vigilante railroad workers. And, all the way, Ben's gang is in pursuit, led by the vicious Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who wants nothing more than to see Ben free and those who captured him dying horrible deaths.
Two things of significance occur during 3:10 to Yuma, and both revolve around Dan. As a character, he doesn't change. Instead, he's the instigator of change in those around him. Dan is the same at the end as at the beginning: devoted to what is right. Justice is his master. He will not kill because it is expedient. He will not turn his back even though he stands to earn a fortune. Dan's obdurateness makes him a wall against which others crash and break. One of those is his son, who starts out the film viewing him with contempt but grows to respect him. The other is Ben who, suffering from something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, forms a grudging respect for the man who rejects his bribes and stays true to his course.
In some ways, it can be argued that Christian Bale has a thankless job. After all, there's nothing showy in playing a stubborn, rigorously just man. Bale, however, brings intensity to the role. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has the plum part as the villain who can be nasty one moment and charming the next. It's the kind of role Crowe plays so well. Ben's the bad guy, but it's hard not to like him. The real one to get the boos and hisses when he appears on screen is Ben Foster, who makes Charlie as freakish and dangerous as a five-headed snake. Not only is he venomous, but he kills for the pleasure of it. Veteran actor Peter Fonda provides a link to the Westerns of old - his dad, Henry, appeared in his share of them.
This isn't director Mangold's first genre effort, although it is his first Western. True to form, however, the action is secondary to character development and the highlighting of moral dilemmas. That's not to say the action isn't well choreographed. The 30-minute finale, which includes a tense stand-off with Ben's gang, is masterfully executed. It's perfectly paced, suspenseful, and ends in a way that's both appropriate and satisfying. Watching a movie like this, I can't help but wish that the Western would come back into favor again. We can use more productions like this.
3:10 To Yuma (United States, 2007)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Marco Beltrami