Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a simple man who finds himself in a complicated situation. Still suffering mental and physical consequences from the American Civil War, he’s trying to make an honest life for himself as a rancher near Bisbee, Arizona. It’s a hard life, however; a life that seems to have betrayed him at every turn. As the story begins, Dan finds himself stuck between his own dwindling sense of self respect; a herd of cattle thinned by several years of draught; an oldest son who thinks his father is a coward; a frustrated wife; and a money lender who knows that, when the railroad finally comes through, the land will be worth more without Evans on it.
Prospects are not looking good for Dan and when he stumbles upon a stagecoach being robbed a gang led by the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), things promise to get a lot worse. When Wade is captured however, the resilient Evans sees a way out of his multiple predicaments by accepting the promise of $200 to help a posse escort Wade the 40 odd miles from Bisbee to the town of Contention where the outlaw will be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma and, ultimately, prison.
Wade isn’t about to go quietly, however, and his vicious gang isn’t about to let him. So, accompanied only by a representative of the stagecoach line, a hardnosed Pinkerton agent, a doctor and a hired gun, Evans must outwit Wade and his gang, a group of rebellious Indians and even the coming railroad itself in order to complete his task, thereby saving his ranch, his family and his self respect. There is plenty at stake for everyone involved and what follows is something of a chess match to see who will come out on top.
3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold’s remake of Delmer Daves’ 1957 film, is the opening salvo of the fall movie season and it’s a terrific one. On the surface, there is enough action and suspense to please any western fan, but underneath, there is also a rich psychological subtext that provides a welcome measure of gravity without slowing things down.
Not everyone is going to fall instantly in love with Yuma, however. In some corners in fact, the grousing has already begun. I’ll admit I struggled with some aspects of the story before ultimately deciding it worked. Some people know right away whether they like a movie or not, but I’m not always one of them. Many of the movies that have since become favorites of mine didn’t necessarily grab me the first time around. Some movies have had to grow on me but have stuck with me for a long time. Other movies I have quickly fallen in love with but they haven’t stood up to the tests of time or memory.
To put it simply without spoiling the plot, some of the actions of some of the characters in 3:10 to Yuma lacked credibility or easy explanation on first examination. While the motivations of Evans were always pretty clear, Wade was frequently a mystery to me. Some of his actions seemed to lack rational justification; so much so that they felt artificial. They didn’t feel organic to the character. The felt as though they’d simply been made for convenient storytelling.
As the end credits rolled, I found I’d enjoyed myself, but I was troubled by Wade and I wasn’t completely satisfied. Eventually however, I began to think about the character from a different angle. Finally, the puzzle pieces of the movie started to come together and what originally felt like plot holes all became clear as a part of Wade’s overall scheme. His motivations, it turns out, run deeper than just pure survival. He’s playing at a larger game
I haven’t really liked Russell Crowe in a movie since The Insider. I don’t know if his Oscar nomination for his performance as Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s film went to his head or if maybe stories of his personal life clouded my impression of him. Whatever soured me on Crowe, I haven’t found any of his recent performances convincing. In Yuma however, I was pleasantly surprised by his sharp and charismatic turn as the outlaw. Wade is a bad guy and Crowe’s off screen bad boy image suits the role, but this is no ordinary criminal. He’s layered. Along with a steely eyed sense of danger, Crowe brings a strange elegance and intelligence to Ben Wade. Here is a complicated and interesting man. He’s a killer to be sure, but an unpredictable one. He’s crafty, observant and more cultured than anyone around him. Crowe plays him subtly and beautifully.
Though his character is less flashy and attention grabbing, Christian Bale also excels as the downtrodden rancher Dan Evans. So many of Bale’s performances are deeply internal and held back from outward expression. They’re sometimes hard to fathom and harder to get involved in, but with Evans, Bale’s quiet determination and subtle expression of barely contained inner struggle are perfect. Bale, I think, was born to play in westerns and he shines in this one.
While it’s too early to be making any predictions (and I’m not very good at making them anyway), it’s not a stretch to say that both men are worthy of Oscar nominations. Crowe has the showier part and seems more likely to get the Oscar buzz, but then he’s also got Ridley Scott’s American Gangster coming soon, so who knows? They may or may not get nominations, but they both deliver Oscar caliber performances.
I should also mention a solid supporting cast including a gruff Peter Fonda as McElroy the Pinkerton man; Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, a slightly unhinged member of Wade’s gang; and Gretchen Mol as Alice, Bale’s dutiful yet conflicted wife. All three would be credible supporting actor nominations, but Oscar is still a long way off and there are many movies yet to be released.
For now, it will be enough if 3:10 to Yuma can find an audience. Though the natural assumption is that a western will only appeal to men, I think a lot of women will be drawn to it as well…if they find it. Bale especially has an appealing combination of vulnerability and strength. He’s something of a wounded animal, yet he’s not prone to moping about it. He remains true to his character as he approaches his burdens with a steadfastness and a basic dedication to clear and simple ideals. Ultimately he remains masculine, but he’s refreshingly lacking in the false bravado you’d find in a lesser man. His journey in the film isn’t just physical, it’s mental and it ends up providing a surprising emotional punch.
Crowe, for his part, simmers with a dangerous charm and it’s easy to overlook Ben Wade’s essentially criminal nature. He’s a man at the top of his game with the confidence to know he can have whatever he wants whenever he wants it. On the other hand, he’s also capable of sudden and extreme bursts of violence when he feels they’re necessary and he shows no remorse for the consequences.
Sparks definitely fly between Bale and Crowe and, after a summer of cinematic snake oil promising much and delivering little, 3:10 to Yuma refreshingly brings the goods. It’s a brisk couple of hours you’ll spend in the theater, but they’re not disposable. Yuma lingers, but it won’t weigh you down.
3:10 to Yuma. USA 2007. Directed by James Mangold. Written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Halsted Welles from a short story by Elmore Leonard. Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. Edited by Michael McCusker. Music Score composed by Marco Beltrami. Starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Ben Foster, Alan Tudyk and Vinessa Shaw. 1 hour 57 minutes. Rated R for violence and some language. 4 stars (out of 5).
Read more with Another Ride on the 3:10 to Yuma