There was a time when Westerns engaged audiences on the level of a simple morality play where audiences knew who the good and bad guys were and were excited and entertained by watching the latter get their comeuppance. Then came along Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which removed that moral façade and showed how real violence was not as sanitized. In the Westerns that followed, the violence combined with more reflective and intellectual dialogue to express morally complex ideas about the human condition.
James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is a masterful revisionist update of the classic western and I mean “revisionist” in the best sense of the word. That is to say, not only does the film unearth a seemingly forgotten genre but it also deconstructs the familiar elements to its spare parts to explore the darker weathers of human nature and the triumph of good that can arise in between. That I completely forgot the film is actually a remake of an older classic Western is a testament to how great it is.
The movie opens in the home of Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a man seeking to rebuild his own life after he lost a leg in the Civil War. He is tired of the looks of shame and disdain from his wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol) and kids, William (Logan Lerman) and Mark (Benjamin Petry), and he is barely trying to keep his ranch afloat in the face of overdue loans. That chance seems to arrive to him when he seizes the rare and perilous opportunity to transport a captured robber and murderer, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), to his prison train in exchange for 200 dollars that will help cover his debts.
Dan’s posse includes Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), an injured man who has a personal vested interest in bringing Wade to justice, and others who work under railroad worker Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts). Wade has his own posse now led by his right-hand man, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who gazes with snaky eyes at Dan’s crew and follows them to make sure they never make it to the 3:10 train to Yuma, which will transport Wade to prison where he will immediately be hanged.
The film’s focus is really on Dan and Ben, two opposed men who know they cannot trust each other but may have to anyway and even bare their own souls to fight for their lives. Ben is a scarier criminal because he can actually intellectualize about his evil deeds with erudite irony. He is smarter than anyone else can catch on and intuits his situations so quickly that it dumbfounds everyone including himself.
His philosophizing of his hedonistic behavior becomes a source of temptation for Dan, who wonders what hidden darker side he will unleash in his quest to somehow redeem his status. That’s made more complicated when William sneakily tags along and seems almost eerily fascinated by Ben’s machismo posturing. Such ideas bring greater depth to the gun battles that happen in between where Ben’s violent nature can hurt but also help the livelihood of the posse against other unforeseen enemies.
To bring this complex character study to life, director James Mangold has rightly picked great actors like Christian Bale and Russell Crowe to embody the leads. There is good acting you recognize and greater acting you hardly notice and when Bale and Crowe exchange dialogue, we reflect on the meaning of the words instead of realizing how well they are really delivering them. That their conversations are so eloquent makes us hardly anticipate another action sequence and makes it unpredictable as to who will be the last man standing.
Both actors really disappear into their characters but the real surprise is Ben Foster who has a silent, steely gaze that peers into the camera. His performance is crucial to establishing the dread that forces people to succumb to give to their own weaker and more survivalist natures. That only becomes truer when members of the escorting posse make surprising decisions based on the pressure that Foster weighs down.
James Mangold’s directorial efforts vary wildly from cop thrillers like Cop Land to Girl, Interrupted and the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. He directs his action sequences here with timing and precision but he is always more interested in exploring the concept of desperation within his characters. Watching this film, the best he has ever done, finally made me understand the common theme that runs through all of his vastly different films – people who are unhappy and unsatisfied with their own place in the world.
The best Westerns have the unique ability above any other genre to visually show pages of commentary on the complicated nature of morality in a violent world and 3:10 to Yuma does just that with great brevity. Its most insightful message is how, after all the shooting and mayhem, the man who can fight with his words rather than his guns or his fists is the one who truly wins.
Bottom line: What are you waiting for? Go see it!