Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Welcome to Oscar season folks, that time of year when just about every film gets hyped as “the movie to beat” for the golden statuette. It’s also a pretty busy time for critics, as the studios release several "big" movies each week. The unofficial beginning of Oscar season starts with James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Before you ask: no, I have not seen the original, and no I don’t intend to. This is because the overwhelming majority of people that will see this film have not and will not see the 1957 version. I do know that it starred Glenn Ford as outlaw Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans, pseudo-hero. Those roles are now occupied by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale respectively. It is highly doubtful that Ford and Heflin, fine actors as they were, did a better job than Crowe and Bale. Hey, I know for sure that Heflin never changed his body composition as many times as Bale, that’s for certain.
I guess it’s now commonplace for any director who wants to be taken seriously to make both a western and a war movie. James Mangold (Heavy, Walk the Line) can now scratch one of those genres off his list. I remember when I was at the Toronto Film Festival several years ago and saw Heavy, his first film. Someone in the audience asked him about Quentin Tarantino and he went on to say that while he can appreciate what Tarantino does, it’s simply not his thing. At the time I really felt as though he was dismissing Tarantino, and since Tarantino was considered a maverick and Mangold had just made a small, low budget film, it seemed to be a little disingenuous of him. But after seeing 3:10 to Yuma I’ve changed my mind. Heck, at least Mangold won’t spawn a million loser imitations of himself the way Tarantino has. This is because he’s the kind of director who takes his time developing the story and his characters so that by the end, we are more affected by what we’ve seen than we expected.
The story here is quite simple. Crowe is Ben Wade, an outlaw who, after his latest heist where he knocks over a Pinkerton coach and kills just about everyone involved, is captured in the small mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. He is to be transported by train to Yuma prison where he will hang shortly thereafter. The tricky part of all this is actually getting him to the train before his gang, led by the smarmy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) can rescue him. To help with the transport, the sheriff hires rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who is so deeply in debt that he accepts the sum of two hundred bucks to help get Wade to the train. Evans has a wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol) and two boys including 14-year-old son William (Logan Lerman) who need the money in order to keep their land.
At this point I was expecting the film to go in the most obvious direction, which would be to have Evans and the sheriff’s crew encounter Wade’s gang at various points, get involved in shootouts that somehow leave Evans the last man standing and the law’s final chance to get Wade to the 3:10. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While we do get our shootouts (and who would expect otherwise in a western), the main focus of the film is on the relationship between outlaw Wade and rancher Evans. While Evans may be working for the law, he’s recently had a run-in with them, as his barn was burned due to his outstanding debt with Glen Hollander (Lennie Loftin). There are times when it seems as though he may join Wade’s side, especially when he’s offered $1,000 to let him go. Wade takes a liking to Evans when he senses that there may be more to him than meets the eye. On the other hand, while Wade may enjoy his badass label, we see that it’s possible that there could be some good in him, but as he says, “You do one good deed it becomes something you can get used to” so he opts out.
Wade is so adept when it comes to getting out of tricky situations that he’s able to break free from Evans and company several times, only to find himself back in their grasp, sometimes even by choice. It’s as though he’s constantly at battle with his own conscience and sense of morality. The same can be said for Evans as well as he must decide whether setting an example for his son is most important when common sense says that staying alive and making some dough might be the more prudent choice.
3:10 to Yuma doesn’t just rely on whether or not Evans will get Wade to the station on time as a way to build tension; in fact that’s not what lies at its heart anyway. It’s the battle of conscience and morality, the complex shades of right and wrong that the film develops that really holds our attention. It accomplishes this because the two actors, Crowe, and Bale are so damn good. Crowe allows us to believe that there could be some good in Wade while at the same time allow his characters animalistic intensity to be present. Bale, who never ceases to amaze, is equally effective as the farmer who knows, as does the film, that the “law” shouldn’t be mistaken for the good guys. It’s also quite the achievement that while the film has its share of old west lingo and shootouts, it’s virtually cliché free, not one shot is predictable as Mangold is not interested in homage but to tell a great morality tale which happens to be set in the old west. 3:10 to Yuma is riveting from first scene to last and it’s a great start to the fall. In Western parlance, it’s all wheat and no chaff.