Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday Movie Review: 3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma (2007) 10/10
Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), desperate for money, agrees to join a group of gunmen bringing notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to justice. They're riding to Contention, Arizona to put Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. But Wade's gang is still free, Wade himself is dangerous, and the road to Contention is fraught with hazards.

What does it take to be a great Western? What would it take to make you want to see a Western made in 2007—a remake no less? For me it starts with mise en scenè; the cinematography, production design, costumes, and actors have to conspire to make it feel real. I've got no use for a fake Western—a bunch of goofy actors playing dress-up and fooling around with guns. Make the characters interesting; the world you're showing me is hard, so let me see what hardening has done to people. There will undoubtedly be action, so film it well and make it exciting. Story counts, and since actors do love to play dress-up, give me talented people whom I'm interested to see in this context. Add a good script with a clear narrative that holds some surprises, and you've got me.

3:10 to Yuma delivers on all counts, and then exceeds any expectation I brought into the theater.

Let's start with the main characters. Bale and Crowe are equally the leads, each with a significant and compelling character arc. As they travel togethe—rthe classic reluctant road trip, a staple of comedy and drama alike—they discover a commonality. Each is clear he is nothing like the other; Evans is moral, a good husband and father, rooted in his ranch, while Wade is straightforward about his own evil; "You have to be rotten," he affirms, to do what he does. Their moral difference honestly separates them and is not prettied up, but their intelligence and dignity draws them together, because here are two men set apart from the worlds in which they live. Evans is smart, insightful, thoughtful; he is better than the moneylender who is close to destroying him, than the drought which has brought him low, than the ranch hands he can't afford to hire. And Wade, pensively sketching nature and quoting Proverbs, lives in a world of thought and imagination that neither criminals nor Pinkertons can touch.

Each man is introduced in a way that paints a vivid portrait. We start with Evans; a sound in the night alerts him, and he's awake, armed, terrified, enraged, and helpless while thugs burn down his barn. His face in the firelight says it all. Then we move to Wade, still and relaxed on horseback, sketching a bird until his gang comes to tell him they're all ready for the brutal robbery that begins the film's action. He leaves the sketch behind, on a branch. Now we know these men.

There's a level at which Ben Wade is monstrous; "He's the devil" the friend I saw it with said. Played with quiet good will by Crowe, he seduces everyone around him with his words; asking questions, probing, seeding doubt. At the same time, he's immensely powerful; unarmed and in handcuffs, the marshal of Bisby is clear that five guards are not quite enough.

Like most Westerns, 3:10 to Yuma is extremely masculine, but the two women with speaking roles are treated with an unusual level of respect. (As an aside, there's an extra in one of the towns, a whore leaning up against the wall, who seems convinced that this is her Big Break. She's blurry and in the background, and acting her heart out. It's pretty funny.) Neither Alice Evans (Gretchen Moll) nor the barmaid (Vinessa Shaw) are clichés; they aren't stupid or objectified or whores or madonnas, they're people.

Actually, the film is populated entirely by people. Few are stock players. Small roles played by Peter Fonda and Alan Tudyk, for example, seem rich; these are individuals, not just whoever is on a horse with a gun.

The movie isn't afraid to make us laugh, but it's deadly serious. It is in many ways conventional, but unexpected things occur. The sense of place is solid; you know where you're going and how you got there—I find that lacking in many movies, where I often feel lost.

There's a brief love scene between Ben Wade and the barmaid that encapsulates everything that can go wrong with movies, and goes right with this one. These quickie seductions are usually too brief, or too dirty, or too chaste, or too mean-spirited, or in any of a dozen other ways, too unbelievable, and stuck there because movies need sex. But this It has context, meaning, and real seduction. When he comes closer to her she is ready, when he touches the back of her neck, she is startled in exactly the right way, and receptive in exactly the right way. It was sexy, and it was touching.

The whole film is like that, side-stepping a thousand wrong turns and making right ones, again and again and again.

(1:16 to Cross-post)