Back in the saddle
3:10 to Yuma
So many times during my movie-viewing tenure, I’ve heard critics declare, “The Western is back!” I’ve always hated that. The saying worked back in the ‘80s, when films like Silverado and Pale Rider put actors back in the saddle after the genre was abandoned in the wake of Heaven’s Gate, a mammoth box-office disaster at the time. But there have been great Westerns over the years since, like Unforgiven, Open Range and last year’s The Proposition. People have been making Westerns, but the public hasn’t necessarily been flocking to them. 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford film, has a chance to change that. Boasting a stellar cast that includes Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, this is a movie that immediately establishes itself as one of the top-tier Westerns of the past 20 years. Director James Mangold and cast do the genre proud.
Dan Evans (Bale), a lowly rancher who lost part of his leg in the Civil War, has fallen on hard times. Businessmen look to drive him and his family off their land, going so far as to burn down Evans’ farm. He’s lost the respect of his older son William (Logan Lerman) and his tired wife (Gretchen Mol), who no longer have faith in the head of the household. Unbeknownst to them, he’s going to get a chance to regain their respect.
While out rounding up cattle, Evans and his two boys witness a brutal stagecoach robbery perpetrated by the famous Ben Wade (Crowe, nailing the sinister part). Rather than kill the witnesses, Wade politely takes their horses so they can’t pursue him and proceeds to the nearest town, where he cavorts with a barmaid (Vinessa Shaw). Wade’s dalliance is a costly one, as Evans makes it back to town and assists locals in his arrest.
For $200, Evans agrees to help escort Wade to a train station and put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will be imprisoned and eventually hanged. Wade’s gang of henchmen, led by the sadistic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), is going to do their best to see that this doesn’t happen. Foster, an actor with a tendency to overdo it, finds the right balance with his portrayal of Prince. He’s a crazed lapdog with an unhealthy attraction to his boss.
This is not your standard Western with one-dimensional good guys and bad guys. Dan Evans is a flawed character, with his motivations guided by money to pay off debt. Wade is a mixture of gentleman, crafty thief and psycho killer—a man who is constantly switching to different modes best suited to the situation at hand. Bale and Crowe relish the opportunities to square-off psychologically as well as physically, and the actors are at the top of their games.
Mangold and his crew have crafted a Western that is a little dirty, yet majestic in a way that reminds me of the great Westerns directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. There are times where the soundtrack evokes Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Everything culminates in a finale that is both rousing and shocking. Don’t take this one in if you’re looking for something along the lines of the Westerns of John Ford. Mangold’s take is most certainly a modern, bloody one that has more in common with HBO’s Deadwood than Ford’s Stagecoach.