It’s difficult to talk about a Western these days without pontificating about it’s place in our current film industry. It always bothers me when a reviewer or writer claims that the Western is dead. That it is not the gold mine of olden days does not mean it’s dead, that very little else can be explored within the themes of the morally gray old west does not mean it’s dead, that it seems to be a place where Directors with a few hits on their shoulders or actors looking to try something different or have a little fun wander into this territory to say that they’ve made a Western does certainly not mean it’s dead. In fact over the past few years I’ve seen a litter of great western movies made. Costner’s “Open Range” was incredibly entertaining, honest, and sorely over looked, as was “The Proposition” starring Guy Pearce alongside other fine actors. Then of course there’s “Unforgiven” and several television movies. You also have the other end of the spectrum with up and coming actors (Heath Ledger, Collin Ferrel to name a couple) who wander into this territory wanting to stand out but not really knowing what to do with it once they get there. I guess you could say like any genre, it all depends on how good or bad the story is. The story presented in the James Mangold remake “3:10 to Yuma” is about a down on his luck rancher and Father, Dan Evans, played by Christian Bale who comes across an opportunity to make some money which could save the ranch and his family by escorting notorious robber and murderer Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, to the train station that will take him to prison and a hanging. But Wade’s team of robbers is hot on their tail. And Evan’s son sneaks along to prove himself a man. There are two types of Westerns; the gritty almost too real look at an old school world becoming a modern one and then there’s the glossy stylized shoot-em ups (i.e. Sam Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead”, also starring Crowe.) “3:10” falls somewhere in between finding just the right amount of each to remain playfully interesting. I will also say a Western done correctly is like the best of science fiction; the story is not only there to entertain, but to delve into the human psyche under great amounts of stress, and like the vastness of space the rugged open planes signify that inner turmoil created many times by an outer conflict between two people. The best kind of Western jars the line between evil and righteousness, and “3:10” is no exception. In fact, it does it’s job fairly well.
The only problem is that “3:10 to Yuma” being a remake doesn’t make it susceptible to story problems, that stars Russel Crowe and Christian Bale are the two actors delving into this territory makes the story’s problems easier to overlook. “3:10” is about perception. What a boy as he becomes a man first perceives in his Father as weakness is what he later finds out gives him cause to keep fighting, and what he first perceives to be charming about a killer and robber…well I don’t want to give away too much. That we are meant to question the heroism of the Evans character and the inner workings of a murderer is another way the script plays with our perceptions. (Many of Wade’s escorts seem shadier than Wade himself.) What’s black under specific circumstances may still be black, but maybe not at the cost of staining something pure and white (which is also noble in it’s own way.) That there is something in every killer that wishes he had never taken those first few steps is a romantic notion indeed, and when the script is playing with these notions it is at it’s most interesting and emotionally taut.
Where the script fails is in it’s sometimes repetitive look at the characters. Once we understand that Wade is a smooth talker that manipulates people into letting down their guard, we don’t need to see it five more times, but the script thinks we do. That Wade kills off the least lovable members of the escort party first is a cheap trick to keep us liking a character that we shouldn’t like. And even though we are well aware that Wade respects what Evans is attempting to do, Mangold and Crowe choose to keep him almost too casually apathetic so that it’s difficult to fully believe his decision towards the end. And it’s difficult at times to believe that Evans isn’t a hero. Certainly they use what would be our questioning dispositions to make us believe that Evans might do something morally ambiguous, but it’s a tough sell. He’s just too nice a guy. On the other hand his willingness to dive into something head first that is practically suicidal is tough to believe as well for many of the same reasons. The fact that we are given some of these reasons just after they make the decisions doesn’t help us believe in the moments in which they make them. It could be that we are trained as viewers to understand such characters on command. And it feels that way when their reasons seem secondary to their decisions; I bought that they would decide that, but never fully believed it. It could also be that Bale and Crowe handle these characters with such delicacy and commitment you never once disbelieve their decisions, even when the script can’t quite keep up with their performances.
These are two of the finest actors around today and here Bale gives a tender and vulnerable performance, while Crowe has murder in his eyes and smile. He kills, but it never seems like he kills someone that doesn’t seem to be asking for it. These actors, with each part they take, change the cadence of their speech, walk with a different weight to their step – they are two of the most honest actors around, not hiding behind their methods, but becoming one with them. I couldn’t help but feel at times though that while Bale does what he normally does and gives everything he has, that Crowe was merely just enjoying himself here. He’s still phenomenal, but he doesn’t always find it in himself to excel beyond the flaws of his character in the writing. The character of Wade though is given a very interesting past time, it’s only because he shows such patience with it that we realize just how okay he is with the person he has become and the things that he does. A man this comfortable certainly wouldn’t change, would he?
The more I’ve sat on this film the more I’ve grown to like it. The characters have grown on me as has the story (except for some extraneous action sequences.) It’s fun and smart, with a cool vibe thanks in a large part to Crowe’s wistful swagger (maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem like he’s trying so hard, he’s such a good actor his lack of concern over the situation he finds himself in is almost too good!) Despite it’s flaws, I recommend it to almost anyone.