A film review by Craig J. Koban

3:10 TO YUMA jj
Ĺ 

2007, R, 117 mins.

Ben Wade: Russell Crowe / Dan Evans: Christian Bale / Byron McElroy: Peter Fonda / Alice Evans: Gretchen Mol / Charlie Prince: Ben Foster / Doc Potter: Alan Tudyk

Directed by James Mangold /  Written by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas /  Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.

3:10 TO YUMA is the type of western that wants to be introspective and complex with its characters, but instead it offers up more disillusionment in the end than genuine interest.  At the heart of the film is a notion that is not altogether new and fresh for the genre: Can a gunslinger outlaw and brutal killer also be held in high regard for folk hero worship? This can make for a compelling character study, especially for the western - one of the most evocative of all genres - but the problem with 3:10 TO YUMA is its focus and approach.

That is not to say that the film is a wasted effort. Director James Mangold (GIRL, INTERRUPTED, COPLAND and WALK THE LINE) certainly has the artistic chops to pull off this type of film.  The finest westerns, like UNFORGIVEN, have always been morality parables that try to make some sense out of the senselessness of frontier life.  In stark contrast to the depravity of and desolation of the landscape is the characters that operate in it, whom are often amoral and conflicted.  The most memorable westerns are ones that dealt with this odd relationship between humanistic values and the stark disorder of the times the characters live in.

Mangold certainly attempts to rehash many of these Western motifs.  On certain levels, the film works by looking at the nature of how one noble man and one lawless man grow to mutually respect and understand one another, despite the fact that they are separated by ethical and moral grounds.  Framed around them both is a society that does not particularly respect either them.  In this way, 3:10 TO YUMA revisits the cynicism and nihilism that has permeated the genre.  The uncertainty and decay around them is not what allows them to change as human beings; they both are mutually reciprocal entities that feed and change off of one another.

The film definitely is ambitious in terms of themes and approach, but there is an odd doubtfulness that Mangold has with the material, especially with the character of outlaw Ben Wade, as played by by the endlessly versatile Russell Crowe.  He is a bandit, murderer, and overall vicious and mean-spirited lout.  By his own admission, he is not above ruthlessly killing women and children, or shooting a man in the back just to get ahead in life.  He is a despicable creature, to be sure.

Yet, I am not sure whether Mangold is trying to say we should respect this man or despise him.  Crowe has a field day playing the duplicitous nature of this character.  At one time he is charming and irresistibly charismatic; at other times heís a vengeful sociopath.  As a foil to this law-breaking marauder is Dan Evans (Christian Bale, in yet another thankless, vanity-free performance), who was a Civil War hero that lost part of his leg in battle.  Now crippled, he tries to engage in a noble profession, that of a rancher, but when he finds that that occupational choice is not working for him, he crosses paths with the notorious Wade and joins a caravan that will capture and escort him to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, where heíll most likely be hung for his crimes.

It is the relationship between these two diametrically opposed personalities that is the emotional epicenter of the film, and Crowe and Bale are in such universally fine form playing off of one another.  From a performance perspective, 3:10 TO YUMA is an absolute triumph.  On a narrative and thematic level, I left the theatre wondering whether or not logic was stripped out of this tale.  Predictably, the law abiding Evans becomes so frustrated by his own troubles that he makes getting Wade to Yuma an obsessive quest.   Wade is his cathartic release and escape from the thought of foreclosure and bankruptcy.   Wade, in turn, slowing appreciates Evans' selfless courage and determination in bringing him to justice.  Of course, all of this boils over and culminates in a climatic, requisite gun battle standoff, and you know - you just know - that Ben will find himself valuing Dan so much that he will assist him with fighting off the marauders and getting on board the train because - dag-nammit - he respects his pluck and gutsy determination.

Huh?

Itís these disingenuous aspects of the film that undermines precisely what itís trying to be.  Wade is such a cruel monster that I never once, at any time, believed that he would actually ally himself with Evans to ensure his own transportation to Yuma and to his certain death.  Now, I can certainly see the allure that Evans has with Wade.  Wade is a free spirit of sorts, who robs banks, overcomes stagecoaches, and has endless amounts of money and a uniformly loyal posse at his disposal.  Evans has no freedom.  His ranch is on the verge of foreclosure, his wife has doubts about their future, heís a cripple and is penniless.  Heís a man that feels mistreated and victimized by society.  The attraction of apprehending a man that has an affluent lifestyle that he will never have is easily palpable.

I understand the dynamic with Evans, but not so much with Wade.  Are we really expected to believe that he would not kill Evans in a heartbeat to secure his freedom?  And moreover, why would he side himself with Evans against his own posse at one point?  Why would he do this? What motivation would guide his actions?  Is it because he simply begins to understand what Evans represents and that his courage and drive is what allows for him to have a complete change of heart about his own predicament?  This whole angle to Wade rings false.  He certainly is presented as being more than just a merciless killer; he is also smart, crafty, and oftentimes humorous, but it never seems plausible that he would risk his escape from a death sentence just to take a final stand and support the gutsy Evans.  This seems to be in direct opposition to Wade's natural, inbred impulses.

3:10 TO YUMA is based on the 1957 original film starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin, which in turn was based on a short story by the then up-and-coming Elmore Leonard.  The basic premise is maintained from the 50-year-old film.  We are introduced to Evans who is trying to make a go of his new ranch with wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and son Will (Logan Lerman).  Evans fears that he has lost his wifeís respect and love, mostly due to the failure of and lack of prosperity he hoped his ranch would secure them.

In order to escape this, he joins a motley crew of men and law enforcement officials to hunt down and capture Wade.  Along for the ride is Byron McElroy (played wonderfully by the grizzly Peter Fonda, giving the screen a lot of character atmosphere), who has a feud of sorts with Wade, and eventually Danís son Will joins up with the clan, which really upsets his father.  Being a typical teenage son that defies authority and respects rebelliousness, Dan fears that his son could become too attracted to Wade.  When they do finally capture him and begin to transport Wade to that town of Contention for the 3:10 train, the rest of the film develops a compelling emotional cat and mouse approach to the proceedings.

The trail leading the group of men to the station occupies some of the better scenes in the film, but Mangold films so much in tight close-ups and compositions; he never allows his camera  open up and capture the intimidating grandeur of the environment, which is really mandatory for these types of films (2006's masterful western, THE PROPOSITION, impeccably understood this, as it created such an eerie and haunting realism to the Australian outback of yesteryear).  At least he gets considerable mileage from the actors and their interplay.  Bale and Crowe, as stated, are truly excellent in their respective parts.  Bale perhaps has the least appreciated performance in the sense that he plays the most wounded and marginalized part.  In stark contrast to the colorful and boisterous Wade, it would be easy to identify with the villain more.  I would say that Crowe has the easier of the two parts, seeing as it would be simpler to sink your teeth into an all-out villain role than that of the internally conflicted hero.  At least Crowe does not make Wade a one-dimensional antagonist.  Heís cunning, whimsical, indescribably smarter than any member of his gang, and he's even refined and cultured (he is a gifted artists that draws and sketches things as he sees them).

Some of the other supporting performances are also strong.  Peter Fonda seems right back at home with his plump role of the gnarly, fist clenched bounty hunter that craves some serious comeuppance against Wade.  Perhaps the filmís most creepily effective work is by Ben Foster, who plays Wadeís right hand man, Charlie Prince, as a figure that has no problems turning the emotional dial from angry to utterly insane.  I have been impressed with Fosterís abilities at being such a chameleon when it comes to immersing himself into roles that require such a caged violence and bitterness.  He has played parts of such monstrous intensity, as demonstrated in ALPHA DOG and HOSTAGE.  His Charlie Fox is such a recklessly freakish man that he kills for the sake of getting a cheap thrill, not because he needs to when the situation presents itself.

There is so much to admire to Mangoldís western.  Bale, Crowe, Foster, and Fonda are fantastic, the character interplay is intermittently well nuanced and scripted, as is the case of the filmís best scene where Wade and Evans have a quiet conversation before all hell breaks loose at the train station.  The final gun battle is energetic and well choreographed.  However, the film takes an awfully long time to build to its climax, and the middle section of it has sluggish, watch-checking pacing.  And when we finally arrive at the conclusion where we see Wade and Evans take a final stand together, I think the film lost a momentary sense of reality.  For a western that prides itself of being intriguing for its dark themes and morally conflicted and shadowy characters, 3:10 TO YUMA cops out at the end with being far too flattering with its personas.  The climax sanitizes everything the plot that preceded it established.  Mangold's choices are too telegraphed and conventional and lack credibility in the film's conclusion.  That, unfortunately, is what did this western in at the end.  Considering all that it had going for it, that is a regrettable shame.

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