Integrity faces challenge in genre-reviving Western

10/2/2007

Film: 3:10 to Yuma
Director:
James Mangold
Cast: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Vinessa Shaw, Logan Lerman
Rating: Rated R for violence and language

By Gregg Tubbs
UMC.org

For decades, Hollywood has been performing CPR on the nearly dead genre of the western. The genre that once ruled the screen has shown few signs of life, with the exception of notable efforts by Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner.

However, with 3:10 to Yuma, the patient gets a powerful jolt. Yuma is a taut, gritty, action-filled western that straddles both old Hollywood classicism and juiced-up modern sensibilities, incorporating the best of both. Better yet, two major stars, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, inhabit the classic good guy, bad guy roles and imbue them with subtle shades of gray and complex moral conflict.

The film opens with a scene of two boys in a candle-lit bedroom, the younger struggling with a persistent cough and the older peering admiringly at a weathered dime-novel about the daring exploits of a western outlaw. The two boys symbolize the polar forces driving the story — the trials, obligations and sacrifice of honest family life; and the romantic, reckless freedom and easy rewards of life outside of the law.

The boys’ own father, Dan Evans (Bale), lost a foot in the Civil War and is struggling to keep their small Arizona ranch in the face of drought and debt deep enough that his barn is burned by the local land baron as a cruel reminder to pay up or get out. Despite his grueling, honest effort, Dan has lost the respect of his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and his older son William (Logan Lerman). He is a good man at the end of his rope, unaware that his salvation will soon arrive in the very form of the bad man his son secretly admires.

Famed outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) is almost everything Dan Evans is not. Wade is dapper, charming, well-dressed, cunning and seductive. He and his fanatically devoted gang pull off the brilliant holdup of an armored stagecoach near Dan’s ranch. When Wade is captured, Dan signs on to help transport the outlaw through Apache territory to the town of Contention where he will be put aboard the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. The $200 he’ll earn could save the ranch, but there are also deeper, more personal issues involved. By delivering Wade to justice, Dan intends to earn back the respect of his family and show William, in particular, the wages of a life of sin. But along the way, there will be trials, both physical and spiritual, that will cause this good man to question himself, his honesty and even his faith.

3:10 to Yuma, based on the Elmore Leonard short story of the same name, was told well once before in 1957. Leonard specializes in complex villains and flawed heroes, and in the new Yuma, director James Mangold (Walk the Line) restores this complexity. In casting Crowe and Bale, he juxtaposes actors who could have easily swapped roles, yet the stars keep the line between the two men clear. Wade is Dan’s superior in virtually every exterior sense. But Dan, as plain and weary as he may be, is Wade’s moral superior — not a perfect man, but a good one. The question is whether he will be able to maintain his integrity.

As they make their treacherous way to Contention, it’s fascinating to watch Wade use all his wiles trying to undermine Dan’s and his other captors’ convictions. He bribes, flatters, threatens and seduces them until, one-by-one, everyone but Dan and young William fall away — either by violence or choice, undone by their own greed or foolish pride. As the two men verbally spar, I was struck by the similarity to the encounter between Satan and Jesus in the wilderness. Wade tempts Dan — weakened like the fasting Jesus — with the riches of the world, the easy way out and the lure of safety and comfort. But Dan, like Jesus, grows in spiritual strength and rebuffs each temptation.

In the end, both men — the good and the bad — achieve a clear, but melancholy redemption. And young William comes to see each man — both of whom seek to impress him — as something better and more noble than expected. 3:10 to Yuma may not resurrect the Western, but it’s a solid piece of entertainment that manages to shine some new light into familiar territory.