Cast: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster
Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 122 min
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Western, Drama, Action
3:10 to Yuma is the reason why I consider westerns the greatest of all genres. 3:10 to Yuma is the reason why I am all for re-makes; the original is one of the earliest films and probably the first western my father helped me through. Most importantly, 3:10 to Yuma is the prime reason why I am in love with films, and I always hope to. I’m not sure how many films I’ll see this year, and how many of them would be great, but if there’s another title this year that can top this remarkable motion picture I would be the most pleasantly stunned man on the face of earth.
As a kid I would be in awe of the world the westerns are set in, it has gradually developed into unabashed love. That world, at its best a complex morality engulfing its gravitating characters has probably been the biggest influence on me at the movies. When I think of it, curiously the word mathematical springs to my mind. It is a world where numbers alone can seal the deal, not intangible elements like authority. You could be the sheriff of town but your star holds nothing when the next bandit walks into town with his gang and you’ve three gunslingers beside you. That and the morality of the individual are the prime variables. The star cannot change the bandit from robbing, but a man, standing alone to face him and his gang, could.
The principal men here, the family man Daniel Evans (Bale) and the bandit Ben Wade (Crowe), are two of the great written characters of our times. And justly, it is played by two great actors. Evans is an impoverished rancher, who has lost his foot in the Civil war. He is a noble man, but that isn’t worth a dime in here. His land is under the gun of the landlord Mr. Hollander owing to the loan, courtesy the lack of water. His barn has recently been burnt as a warning against those pending payments. His younger kid is suffering from tuberculosis, and his elder son doesn’t think much of him. His self esteem is all but obliterated. The worst, he thinks his wife doesn’t look at him anymore as the way she used to. There would have been a time when he would have stood alone and cried, yelled at God. Now, though, the tears have dried up. With a wry smile at his wife, he notes – “No one can think less of me.” I think, goodness is the absence of evil, rather than the other way round. And much of that owes to basic human tendency, for our instincts wander along hell-ish paths. What we need is goodness to rein them in. Evans is that kind of a person, I believe, and the purest example of such kind.
Standing opposite him is the bandit Ben Wade, the man that follows his instincts. He leads a pack of animals masquerading as bandits, and it supposedly, requires a real rotten person to lead them. The initial robbery is a great sequence, in the way it is executed and in the way it speaks volumes about Ben Wade but doesn’t reveal much. Part of the reason why Alexander was revered by his men, my father would tell me, was that he would lead, literally, his men into battle, as opposed to the king who would sit back. He would be found always with the first wave of the invasion. Ben Wade here is revered by his gang but he doesn’t lead them. He stays back. There’s a whale of information captured there.
One of the great pleasures at the movies has been the interaction of great characters played by great actors. Bale and Crowe speak to each other, look at each other with a curiosity bordering on admiration, probably spilling on to the other side. Crowe’s Wade has met a great number of people from bounty hunters to the animals that make up his gang. Bale’s Evans has not met a man who thinks much of him. And in each other they find an equal, and they seem to finally find a person who is capable of understanding each other. It requires great actors to deliver lines that seem to reveal much more than the words they contain. And Bale and Crowe are no ordinary actors. It would have been so easy to have overdone his part, been loud, and would have been showy. Crowe doesn’t, it is his eyes alone that do the talking for him. Westerns usually remind me of those squint eyes that make my day. Here’s another set that is equally capable of setting ablaze a whole town, yet can find place for admiration for an equal. Bale amazes me with his brilliance, with his greatness and he is building a body of work that is quite rapidly leaving me short of adjectives. There’s hoarseness in his voice, a man who is tired of praying and now he has nothing left in him but the bare remnants of hope. His eyes are wide open, still begging God for a chance, to be a hero for his son and his wife, and in the eyes of all. He begs for somebody to think something of him, for he possibly can’t. God will one day listen to him. Bale has given a towering performance in another fine film this year, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, which I’ll be reviewing shortly. That’ll test my adjectives. To deliver one such performance in a year is a wonder, to back it up with another one is a miracle. If Bale and Crowe do not land nominations in this awards season, I would be most surprised and most disappointed.
For a western it would have been terribly easy, now more so that the genre is almost extinct save the occasional appearances, to stick the camera right in the middle of the desert or go for crane shots since almost everybody is influenced or is expected to be influenced by John Ford and Sergio Leone. It resists the temptation and rather goes for close shots of the actors and I cannot admire any higher. This is a character-based film, and it achieves its magnificence, its glory in the wide terrain of its actors’ expressions. Any such film needs to have able supporting members too, and 3:10 to Yuma has them in abundance. There’s a spectacular sideways shot of Wade’s henchman Charlie Prince – as he coerces a man out of information, the background is burning. That kind of help does wonders for Ben Foster, who plays Prince, and is scary evil. Not that there isn’t any action, there is significant amount of it. But the film doesn’t seem to enjoy the violence; it seems to consider it pointless and almost always seems to be shying away from it.
James Mangold, who made such competent films in Walk the Line, Identity and most important of all that fantastic film Heavy, delivers hardly a false moment in the entire picture. He almost always composes the frame exquisitely, important for any great western. Most significantly, he is the kind of filmmaker who seems to dwell in moral struggles. And if there was a western to be picked up to be re-made, he picked up the right one. His world isn’t that of High Noon where nobody seems to be ready to extend a helping hand, nor is it Rio Bravo where almost everybody raises his hand to be counted. It is somewhere in the middle, a sort of compromise between the two. It is grim, it is dark, but there’s something mythical in its grimness. He chooses music to the same roaring effect. Some are complaining about the climax. Without revealing anything, I would say that there was no other way out for the characters. Not to me, at least.
3:10 to Yuma is the kind of film that makes me not want to watch anything, not want to read anything that could adulterate the experience. It is the kind of film that makes me sit and wonder about the characters, draw myths around them, create legends around them and revel in that exercise. And then watch it again, just to relive those moments. Another time that happened was when I bought myself the DVD of Unforgiven a couple of years ago. Here’s another great western, and a roaring classic for the ages.