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Railroading the Western
3:10 To Yuma (DVD)
Member Name: LadyAudley
3:10 To Yuma (DVD)
Advantages: Solid movie in all respects, some good acting
Disadvantages: Very straight-faced, a little mediocre
Instead, this is a straight-shootin', patriarchal, old-fashioned Western, with a surprisingly moralistic message about doing the right thing in spite of temptation. Boiled down to basics, it's basically Rocky V set in the Wild West. Dan is a beleaguered, downtrodden white farmer with no status in his community and precious little in his family, who decides to take a stand to rescue his own position and to protect his farm, his wife and his sons. His opportunity comes when he witnesses a robbery by amoral, murderous bandit Ben Wade, aids in his capture, and is offered cash to help the railroad men and the sheriffs to escort the captive to a prison train (the titular 3:10 to Yuma). As the journey progresses, however, the relationship between captive and captor starts to shift, with Wade beginning to feel something like respect for the dogged strength and determination of Dan, and Dan starting to feel some sympathy towards his prisoner.
Despite the clichés, this plot could have had potential: the script constantly hints that the main character's bloodyminded perseverance in getting his charge to the train is every bit as troubling as Wade's positively Nietzschean disregard for morality or community. Both lead actors do their best to stress this. Christian Bale proved in The Machinist and Batman that he does haunted better than any American actor in the business, and here he brings a quiet, tortured desperation to the character of smallholder Dan. He's well paired with Russell Crowe, who swaggers across the screen as bandit Ben Wade, glorying in a kind of Nietzschean freedom from moral restraint, but allowing the audience occasional glimpses into his character's vulnerability. The two work together in a kind of elegant counterpoint, and you get the feeling that both are trying their hardest to bring some depth to the story.
However, in the hands of a director like Mangold, these ambiguities get mown down faster than Wade can gun down his antagonists. Where Howard Hawks or John Ford would have revelled in the opportunity to destabilize the audience's convictions and question the patriarchal figure, Mangold is only interested in bringing us back to the moral message of the film: that Dan is an ordinary guy, but a Good Man. The hero even has a disrespectful yet inexperienced fourteen year old son, who learns to revere his father's perseverance as the movie progresses - it just doesn't get more middle-of-the-road and family valuesey than this. The result is that the dark side of the relationship between Dan and Ben is never really fully explored, never allowed to develop much beyond what we first see onscreen. This wouldn't be a dealbreaker in its own right, were it not for the existence of a twist in the tail of the tale of such gigantic proportions that it requires painstaking, clever preparation from the very first scene to make it credible. Without revealing the ending, as it stands, however, there's simply not enough at the beginning of the movie to allow us to believe that Ben Wade would make the decisions that he does make at the end. In the last twenty minutes, the whole edifice of the film comes crashing down around the audience's ears, negating any real emotional charge that the denouement might have possessed in the hands of a superior director.
I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad film. It's not. It's solid: well acted, well lit, well scripted and an entertaining enough way to spend two hours on a rainy Sunday. But great it ain't... and the shame is that, with a better pair of hands at the helm, it really could have been.
Summary: Don't catch the 3:10, catch Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada instead!