The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, March 06, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - 3:10 to Yuma

Originally published 9/14/07
Full review behind the jump

3:10 to Yuma

: James Mangold
: Screenplay by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard
: Cathy Konrad
: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Vanessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol

If you watch the end credits of
3:10 to Yuma, you’ll see that the usual titles for support staff have changed. Instead of “Costumer for Mr. Crowe”, it reads “Costumer for Ben Wade”. Instead of “Personal Assistant to Mr. Crowe”, it’s “Personal Assistant to Ben Wade”. What movie star worth his oats wouldn’t want to strap on a gun belt and play a bad-as-hell bandit named Ben Wade? Crowe, whose career demonstrates a canny understanding of where his acting chops can take him and where star charisma takes over, steps into the role of Ben Wade not only with his usual meticulous empathy, but with an added zest, a playful malignance. Out of his glittering eyes and every pore too, he exudes the sense that he loves that this is an old-fashioned Western, and he gets to wear the black hat.

And who doesn’t love a Western? Rattling stagecoaches, swinging saloon doors, hostile Apaches, holsters and horses, the campfires, the heroic musical themes that twang and howl underneath wide vistas, bundles of dynamite, the way snow looks dusted across a high desert plain; Westerns are one of the pillars of American cinema. James Mangold is a filmmaker who, much like the genre-straddling Curtis Hanson, is first and foremost a craftsman who never fell out of love with the movies. And in remaking this Western (so faithfully that Halsted Welles, the screenwriter who originally adapted Elmore Leonard’s short story in 1957, shares a credit here) he’s created a movie which is not just a cracking good Western, but a proclamation fit to remind us about how great Westerns are.

Ben Wade’s gang has made a habit out of robbing the railroad’s payroll, to the extent that the railroad company now has to send out a reinforced stage with armed Pinkertons and a Gatling Gun. Wade robs it anyway. Blindingly fast with a pistol – his revolver is nicknamed “The Hand of God” – his true strength lies in the fanatical devotion he inspires in his minions. His right-hand man, the primly-sadistic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), glows with either agony or ecstasy depending on how close he is to the boss.

So when Wade is captured, his sureness that his men will come for him, burning and killing anything that stands in their way, is not something he feels happy or sad about. It is a simple inevitability.

The railroad’s representative, Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), wants Wade transported to the town of Contention, there to be put on a train bound for Yuma prison so he can be tried and hanged. It’s a two-day trip, and Wade’s gang is likely to be hard after them the entire time, not to mention the threat of Wade himself, always calculating an escape and never hesitating to murder. But for the price of $200, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) joins the posse.

Why is something of a mystery. He’s a good sharpshooter, but he’s hobbled by a shot-off foot, and out here on the frontier he’s just a rancher with a sick young son (Benjamin Petry), debt markers to a land baron neighbor (Lennie Loftin) who wants to drive him off, and a wife (Grethcen Mol) who stopped believing in him long before he failed to keep the thugs from burning the barn down. Other men would have broken, and Evans for sure is bent double already.

He does need the money, maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s that, when he crossed paths with Wade during a robbery, Evans saw how his older son William (Logan Lerman) lit up on seeing the legendary outlaw, how his eyes sparkled in a way that they never have around his limping, straight-and-narrow father.

But what keeps Evans on this deadly job, and what fascinates Wade about him, is a fierce belief that leads to an argument Evans will not back down from. It’s not an argument that the two give way to in conversation too directly, but they carry it on in choices of action all the way across a hostile countryside, into a climax that’s like the one from High Noon, only with a twist that tilts the odds even more ominously against the hero.

The argument sneaks out when Evans has the chance to take a rich bribe and walk away unscathed, or when he could abandon Wade to some of the many enemies he’s made across the West, or when they dispute over supper whether or not it’s the same thing to shoot an animal as to shoot a man. Because if you accept there is such a thing as a man, higher than an animal, it follows that it’s because man has a choice to be selfless, to be good. And if there are good men, it must mean that there are bad men, and bad men have to get put on the train for prison. The frontier is where this argument needs to happen, because by the time the railroad finishes bringing the civilization in, the argument is settled.

Bale is superb in this role, he needs to be a humbled man with a core of iron, both pathetic enough for the average man to overlook, but passionate enough about his private code for Wade to see him as he is. The relationship that develops between them, the recognition that they stand across an existential gulf that both divides and links them, is something you see more often these days in the scrambled loyalties of a Hong Kong crime picture. But 3:10 to Yuma knows where the movies first made these sorts of icons.

There’s a poise and confidence here that reminds us Hollywood used to put its “A” resources to work for adults. Mangold is not an in-your-face stylist but quietly, capably delivers action, suspense, humor and poignancy with the gusto of a man who’s waited a long time to play with these particular toys. He also, as already demonstrated in his prior picture Walk the Line, understands the value of talent top-to-bottom in the cast ranks, which allows for such treats as Peter Fonda playing a grizzled bounty hunter, and Firefly’s Alan Tudyk as the jumpy Doc Potter.

But in the end, this show is about two men, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, taking each other’s measure as the guns close in and the train approaches. Whether Ben Wade gets on that train will not be so much about whether Dan Evans can physically force him, but about whether he can win that argument. With two actors like this, it’s going to be a formidable one. Both of them know what kind of picture they’re in, and just how to make it mythic all over again.


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