It’s not easy finding a good old-fashioned entertaining movie, so when one finally does come along it is manna from heaven. James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is that film. It works on every level that matters. It brings back Russell Crowe as the best actor of his generation, it proves yet again what a magnificently versatile actor Christian Bale is, it brings newcomer Ben Foster front and center in a scene-stealing performance, and it revives the western all in one fell swoop.
A remake of the 1957 movie starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, James Mangold’s 3:10 is easily one of the few films worth shouting about this year. What’s tricky here is balancing the action with the humor and the inherent tragedy. Mangold somehow pulls it off, even though there is little in his directorial background to prepare us for this feat. Sometimes movie magic is just that.
One of the ways the film succeeds is having great actors to work with. So many are hired these days based on looks or popularity. Russell Crowe is a star. We’ve forgotten, in a way, how bright a star he is because in the last few years his private fits upstaged his ability to disappear into a role. Enough time has gone by, though, that he is once again able to express himself, and oh so brilliantly, on film. Ben Wade is one of his finest roles yet. Wade is as seductive and charismatic as the devil himself, which is perhaps why he inspires devotion not only in most every woman he meets (no woman I know could resist his charms) but in the men who follow him, hunt him and protect him. Young boys gaze upon him with admiration. Lawmen are afraid of him and those who aren’t pay dearly. He is the best and worst of the cowboy legend that shaped how young boys grew into men both on film and probably in real life way back when.
The film pins down Wade’s lack of morality against his opposite, Dan Evans (Bale), a man who has nothing left but a beautiful tired wife (pretty Gretchen Mol), two sons and a ranch he can’t afford. The town landowners would just as soon see Evans and his family pack up and leave so they can build a railroad through his land. They force his debt by burning his barn. By the time he encounters Wade, Evans is already a broken man. Yet beneath his hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes is a reed of honor and strength. Wade sees it even if no one else does, and from the moment they lock eyes to the very last minute of the film Wade cannot let go of his pity or his respect for Evans. This film would be good without that central relationship, but it would not be great.
Because he is desperate enough to sell his possessions in order to save his family ranch, Evans takes on the risky job of being one of the ragtag gang that brings the now captured Wade to the town of Contention so he can be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. He is doing it for the $200 he will be paid, which is enough to keep his ranch. For now. The trip to Contention is what comprises much of the film.
What drives Evans is his need to be something more to his boy than a broken, useless man. His older son William (Logan Lerman) disobeys his father (whom he clearly doesn’t respect) and tags along with the law enforcement team. There is a sense that he doesn’t think his father can do the job, so he, at the wise old age of 14, will be there to “protect” his father and make sure Wade, whom he can’t help but admire, is brought to justice.
The film is at once a confrontation between the lure of evil and the agony of goodness and a story about a father who, for one moment in an otherwise unacknowledged life, wanted to be a hero in the eyes of his son. This is another thing that the all-seeing Wade notices, and another reason he becomes protective of Evans and even his son.
Yet, as these things often go, even if goodness prevails, the devil will have his way with you. When the game is over, the game is over. Don’t miss 3:10 to Yuma, the best film of the year so far and one that brings back the western in the best way.