Review: 3:10 to Yuma
By Shane Jenkins
September 7, 2007
Russell Crowe likes to be in manly movies about manly men doing manly things. And if he gets to be the manliest man around, all the better. Well, it doesn't get much more manly than this. James Mangold's absolutely fantastic western 3:10 to Yuma is veritably dripping with sweat, bullets, dirt, testosterone, booze, and sheer unadulterated manliness. It practically oozes through the screen, and you may want a shower after watching it.
Mangold's film is a remake of the 1957 movie of the same name, much beloved by others but unseen by me. Both films are based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, the writer of novels like Get Shorty and Rum Punch, among many others. The film's plot is fairly straightforward - a principled rancher (Christian Bale) agrees to help escort a notorious stagecoach bandit (Crowe) to the titular train to jail, in exchange for some money that will help keep his ranch in business. There are, of course, many complications, but Yuma is primarily about these two men who develop a grudging (if wary) respect for each other over the course of the movie. It's a little like Midnight Run, but with fewer F-bombs and more cattle.
Mangold's last movie was the Johnny Cash story Walk the Line, which garnered an Academy Award for Reese Witherspoon and a nomination for Joaquin Phoenix. I was impressed by the performances in that film, but felt like the movie itself failed to live up to them. In Yuma, Mangold gets another pair of outstanding performances from his leads, but here has crafted a movie that bolsters his actors instead of leaving them out to dry. The film has pretty clear-cut good and bad guys, but with more interesting shading than the standard "black hat vs. white hat." The screenplay for Yuma is all understated dialogue and glowering. Nobody talks too much, and they don't have to - everything is in the eyes.
This reliance on subtle acting over words requires really skilled performers, and Mangold lucks out with his Crowe/Bale dream team. For reasons that I don't understand, Bale often is overlooked, both by the Academy and viewers in general, when it comes to great working actors. He doesn't bring any star baggage to his parts, and therefore still seems like a regular guy and can pull off these everyman roles. Even though he is, you know, Batman. In Yuma, he plays a good man struggling just to keep himself and his family afloat. He takes the assignment, mostly for the money, but also to tries to be a hero to his teenage son (Logan Lerman, a long way from owl movie/yaoi fantasy Hoot!). Bale has incredibly expressive eyes, and you can feel his struggle to be righteous, even in the face of the temptations placed before him.
Crowe, on the other hand, brings an airport's worth of star baggage to his roles, which sometimes works for him (Master and Commander) and sometimes doesn't (A Good Year). Crowe is Hollywood's go-to alpha male, at least now that Mel Gibson has gone insane. He excels in roles where he is the one in charge, and he's a good fit with this character - the much-feared leader of a pack of vicious robbers. His eyes always seem to be smiling a little, like he's one step ahead of everyone and knows how everything will play out. He doesn't overdo this smugness in a way that, say, George Clooney might. But he has a innate charm that draws us (and several characters) to him. He's a smooth talker, and it's easy to forget how dangerous he really is.
This leaves the overacting duties to Malkovich-in-training Ben Foster. After memorable appearances in Freaks and Geeks and as the lead in the affable teen movie Get Over It, Foster would seem to have been destined for a Jason Biggs-like career. But after some over the top performances in Hostage and Six Feet Under, Foster has cornered the market on "young crazy guy." In Yuma, he plays Crowe's sociopathic, strangely fey right-hand man. He is cold-blooded in a way that even Crowe seems to find disturbing, and he supplements his violence with weird facial tics and odd phrases. It's a classic bit of scenery-chewing, but it works.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Yuma is that it has given new life to an old genre. All the standard western elements are here (horses, guns, saloons), but Mangold modernizes everything while staying true to the formula that has worked for so long. This is a great-looking movie, from a locomotive's steam billowing against the blue sky, to a frightening barn fire that casts flickering shadows on faces already devastated by the economic ruin it's causing. There is a simple scene with people eating dinner in a dining room that is loaded with tension and shot a bit like a horror film. It is these unexpected touches that make Yuma such a memorable experience.
I've never been a big fan of westerns, something I think is common to many people born after the '60s. They just seem so foreign and antiquated. How can a movie with dusty guys riding around on dusty horses possibly be relevant to my life in any way? Well, the moralistic story of Yuma, with its struggles about trying to get by in an unfair-seeming world, couldn't be more timely or relevant in today's climate. The highest praise I can give to the movie is that it has ignited a curiosity in me about other westerns, and a desire to see what I've been missing all this time. Maybe all those dusty manly manly men aren't quite the dinosaurs I had always thought them to be. In any case, 3:10 to Yuma is a definite must-see and one of the year's best so far.