Tuesday, September 25, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The Western genre has a lot of iconography that is always with any viewer, whether they consciously think of it or not. You have the lone hero, standing alone against the odds, you have the fearful and incompetent townspeople, and you have the villain.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) takes all that and turns it on its head. 3:10 is the story first and foremost of 2 men and their relationship to people around them.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is the failing rancher, injured in body during the Civil War and injured in spirit by a drought-beset, debt ridden farm, a wife and son who don't respect him, another son quite sick, and a nigh on to hopeless situation.

Conversely, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is the smart, tough, capable leader of a particularly successful, albeit brutal, band of train robbers.

In the opening scene the character of Evans is set. His farm is raided at night and his barn set on fire by Tucker (Kevin Durand) and another man. They are the henchmen of Glen Hollander (Lennie Loftin), the man about to foreclose on the Evans ranch. Evans, former sharpshooter for the 2nd Massachusetts regiment, has a clear shot at Tucker as he rides away but refuses to take it. His son William (Logan Lerman) shows his deep disappointment and continues to criticize his ineffectual dad.

In the next scene we start seeing the "good badman" of Ben Wade. While waiting for a stagecoach he carefully draws a picture of an eagle that has been sitting on a nearby branch. The love of nature and desire to capture beauty gives him the classic movie markers of a good guy which is accentuated by the good-humored smile he constantly maintains. This smile is an even stronger marker when contrasted with the ever-present frown on Evan's face.

In the ensuing stagecoach robbery Wade's gang charges into a heavily armed group of men. They are on the verge of failing their ambush when Wade pushes the scattered herd of Evans' cows in front of the stage. Every member of the stagecoach crew is killed except for Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), the long-time foe of Wade. Even he is badly wounded when Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) shoots him at point blank range...but Wade won't let Prince finish the job.

In Charlie Prince we have one of those supporting characters so essential to turning a good movie into a great one. Foster does an outstanding job of playing a man who has a cult-figure like worship of Wade. He has a fanatical, somewhat psychotic look in his eyes. He looks like he really enjoys the adrenaline and his role as a sadistic killer.

After the conclusion of the robbery the Wade gang repairs to Bisbee to celebrate. Wade sends the boys on so he can enjoy the attentions of the saloon woman but waits too long and is captured. Stagecoach man Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) puts together a group of men to take Wade to Contention to put him on the train to Yuma prison. To earn money for his farm Evans joins the group.

As they travel Wade maintains his sense of humor...until the first night out on the road Tucker goads him too far. Wade, while handcuffed, manages to kill Tucker by strangulation. And here is one of the places the viewer starts to understand the depth of this movie. He would escape if not for the timely intervention of William, who snuck out after them against his Dad's orders.

Tucker is nominally on the side of the law. He is transporting a thief and murderer...yet he himself has engaged in criminal behavior in burning down Evans' barn. Even while in the posse he has been goading Evans...so you not only do not grieve for his loss, you are tempted to cheer Wade's dispatching of him.

The same is true of his inevitable killing of McElroy after a verbal exchange in which the "pious" McElroy is revealed to be a murderous weasel of the worst kind...and finishes with him being thrown off the cliff. Again, the verbal exchange leads you to identify with Wade, the villain...as does almost every verbal exchange.

Another fine example would be between Wade and Butterfield. Butterfield talks about all the stages Wade has robbed, all the money he has stolen...and Wade replies something along the lines of "Notice he says nothing about the lives I have taken." Thus we notice the interesting dilemma...the representative of corporate America, Butterfield, cares about possessions and the outlaw cares about lives.

So the audience is cheering the villain...this could be a disturbing trend. And it continues when Apaches attack. Wade manages to seize a gun, sneak up the hill and dispatch them. His heroic role gains him further admiration. Then he makes good his escape, taking the guns of the posse and their horses.

Unfortunately for Wade, he rides into a railroad camp being run by a hard case Marshal who had watched Wade shoot down his brother. When the posse catches up to Wade he is being tortured brutally by the Marshal. The way Wade bears up under the torture refers back to the Western codes...the hero bearing up against impossible odds without murmur.

It is at this point that the point of having Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk) makes his presence felt. First he protests the mistreatment of Wade as immoral. Moments later Potter is dead and symbolically the posse has lost its conscience.

Of course, the evil Marshal must receive his comeuppance which comes when Prince rides through. He asks where Wade went, notices the badge, asks if they are a posse, then guns down 3 men in fewer seconds. It further advances his role as a very dangerous adversary.

Finally the escort for Wade arrives in Yuma. Shortly behind them comes Prince and his gang. So we are set for the big showdown.

As soon as they get to Yuma Butterfield heads out to recruit help. He comes back with the Contention Marshal and his capable deputies. However, when Prince makes a diabolical and fiendish announcement to the town, the Marshal and his men elect not to participate in walking Wade to the train. They walk out front, lay down their guns...and Prince and his gang promptly gun them down in a heavy fusillade. Thus we learn that when good men lay down because of the threats of bad men they die anyway.

Finally even Butterfield walks away and tries to convince Dan to do so. Instead, Dan insists he is going to do the job, but not before first wrangling a promise from Butterfield that ensures the success of his ranch.

The final showdown could have been equal to that of High Noon (1952) when Will Kane (Gary Cooper) takes on a numerically superior but morally inferior gang. The only reason it isn't is 3:10 spends too much time leading up to the finish with random violence. It does not build quite the same level of tension...but it does grant the same release.

The showdown is epic. Evans does lots of heroic shooting, Prince is even deadlier in the same erratic, psychotic manner he has been all movie, shooting both at Evans...and anyone he thinks was shooting too close to his hero Wade.

Finally Evans gets Wade on the train, fulfilling his end of the bargain. Through this act he finds redemption. He has proven himself courageous and capable. However, he has also shown he isn't quite vicious enough since he did not slay Prince. Prince lets him know that was an oversight by emptying his gun into Evans, rescuing Wade.

Somehow, it is okay because Evans found his redemption. Meanwhile, Wade hops off the train, gets his gun back...and promptly kills every last member of his gang in retribution for their killing of Evans. Thus he finally finds redemption, the little spark of good within him and we can openly cheer for the man we have privately been rooting for all along.

Then he gets back on the train so Evans' pact with Butterfield will remain intact and as the train pulls out, he signals his horse to follow, leaving it to the imagination that he will escape yet Evans' family will still be cared for. It is a different way to have a happy ending for all.

The cinematography was decent, rarely standing out as either good or bad. The directing was good, though some strange decisions were made...such as having train men standing around after thousands of rounds were poured into the vicinity, numerous people in the final shootout who appeared to be firing at each other for no apparent reason, and in the scene where Prince burns a guy inside a stagecoach, why the guy would give up his gun after firing once. But overall it was solid work.

The acting was, for the most part, outstanding. On occasion Bale would forget he was supposed to limp...other times he looked like he could barely walk so clearly he never developed a limp he was comfortable with. Prince and Crowe were outstanding...actually, everyone was strong. You were in a believable world where people looked like they were behaving naturally.

Overall it was a quite enjoyable movie that is an interesting update of the classic 3:10 to Yuma (1957) with some nice homages...such as Evans and Wade working together to get Wade on the train. If you are a Western fan...or maybe even if you aren't...go check out 3:10 to Yuma.

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